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How Does Geothermal Drilling Trigger Earthquakes?

People living near a geothermal drilling project in fault-riddled northern California are worried about more earthquakes after a similar project triggered a major jolt in Switzerland. A seismologist explains the forces at work

By Katherine Harmon   
Despite the promise of cheap, clean power, geothermal energy development may be on shaky ground. There have been rumblings from residents and scientists alike that drilling deep to tap naturally occurring heat could cause bigger earthquakes.

Already on edge about temblors, northern California locals are eying an expansive new geothermal project proposed by a company called AltaRock that's going to be boring down more than two miles (3.2 kilometers). The area near the town of Anderson Springs—about 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of San Francisco—is home to natural geothermal vents (nicknamed The Geysers by early visitors who saw the steam vents there) and has been exploited for its natural energy-generating capacity for the better part of the last century. Starting in the 1970s, as technology improved, engineers started to crank up the production levels. Small earthquakes began shortly thereafter.

Just a few years ago, a now-infamous geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, which drilled three miles (4.8 kilometers) into Earth's crust, set off a magnitude 3.4 earthquake, rocking the town and shutting the operation down entirely, The New York Times recalled recently.

Drilling has even been fingered as the cause of a massive 2006 mud volcano in Java, which displaced more than 30,000 people after a gas exploration project went awry. "We are more certain than ever that the Lusi mud volcano is an unnatural disaster," Richard Davies of the Center for Research into Earth Energy Systems at Durham University in England said in a statement after investigating the incident.

The U.S. Department of Energy has already chipped in $36 million for AltaRock's project, and in an effort to drive down the price of renewable energy Google has anted up $6.25 million, the Times reported.

But will these deep holes—and deep-pocketed investors—trigger the next big one? To find out, we spoke with U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Team seismologist David Oppenheimer, who is based in Menlo Park, Calif., just a couple hours south of the area.

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