Geothermal Drilling: Acting Like Apes

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A NOVA program earlier this week explored the learning and teaching habits of apes ... and how they differ from those of humans. Apes of various kinds are capable of learning quite a bit, including, in the case of one chimpanzee, 3,000 vocabulary words. But apes apparently lack the fundamental drive and ability to intentionally teach subject matter to others in their social groups. Apes (and other animals) learn primarily through observation ... which considerably limits the number of concepts they can be taught, or learn. 


In an interview, MIT cognitive scientist Rebecca Saxe said that apes don't seem to feel compelled to pass on new or innovative discoveries to others. They rarely cooperate on new innovations, and they also lack a written language with which to store and pass on the discoveries of previous apes or generations. Which, Saxe says, accounts for why humans are able to learn so much more, innovate more creatively, and progress so much further in our technology, civilization, and conceptual understanding than our ape cousins. 

How does that relate to geothermal drilling? Because that NOVA program came to mind as I read a New York Times article the next morning about a California company called AltaRock. AltaRock plans to generate geothermal energy by drilling deep into the felsite layer of the California bedrock, some 2-3 miles beneath the earth's surface, and injecting water under high pressure to create fissures in the rock, releasing steam. 

The very idea of intentionally destabilizing rock and, by definition, generating small earthquakes in a state known for its unstable underpinnings might seem a bit sketchy, in terms of safe or prudent behavior. But two items in the article gave me additional pause. First and foremost ... that approach to generating geothermal energy has been tried before. Recently. With rather bad results. A company in Basel, Switzerland using the same technique was shut down in 2006 ... almost as soon as it started ... because it generated not only an immediate earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale (but which packed a greater punch because it was closer to the surface than most natural earthquakes) ... but another 3,500 quakes in the months that followed. The company officials were reportedly surprised at the turn of events, because advocates of the technique said they could successfully set off small quakes without triggering larger ones. 

Yet strangely enough, that information didn't manage to find its way into AltaRock's application for the federal permits to use the same technique in California. The Basel incident happened after a U.S. Energy report touting the potential benefits of geothermal energy--the report that got AltaRock venture funding as a company--was printed. But AltaRock knew about it by the time the permits were filed. The company mentioned the 3.4 quake in Basel, among other tremors near drilling sites, in its seismic report. But it didn't mention that the Basel drilling operation had been shut down because of the quake, or any of the subsequent tremors in the area. 

Why? AltaRock's story (according to the Times) is that they didn't feel the additional information was relevant. First, because, they weren't convinced there was a link between the drilling and the quakes (although the Swiss government determined that there was, and the Swiss company's insurance company paid out $8 million in claims) and second, because AltaRock said it had improved the technique to prevent a similar problem. 

Forgive my skepticism, but I can't help but wonder ... if AltaRock had improved the technique and solved the risk, why wouldn't the company note the Basel incident in their applications, and then explain why their approach was different and safer? 

We humans, with our amazing ability to innovate, have often gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in our enthusiasm for new technology. We get so excited about its potential that we tend to gloss over questions about whether or not we really understand what we're playing with. Looking back, for example, at the early nuclear testing (where observers stood a mere six miles away from ground zero with only shaded goggles to protect them), we now shudder at our ignorance of the risks and consequences involved. But at least then we could legitimately plead ignorance. In this case, there is previous experience to draw and learn from. 

Clearly, the Swiss engineers didn't understand the dynamics of drilling for steam as well as they thought they did. AltaRock may think they've learned from that example. But they evidently weren't confident enough to take that argument public. Which ought to give more than a few people pause. 

Innovation is a double-edged sword. It helps us progress and change life and the world for the better. But innovation is not the holy grail, inherently good without consideration of complexity and consequences. As the NOVA program pointed out, our superior progress comes also from our ability to teach and learn from others' examples and mistakes.

So the good news is, we have an amazing ability to teach, and learn. The bad news is ... just because we have an ability doesn't mean we necessarily use it. 

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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