The federal government has halted a geothermal power project in California in response to concerns the project is causing an increase in regional earthquake activity

The project was launched last fall with more than $6 million in taxpayer funding.

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The project, in a Northern California region knows as The Geysers, entails drilling underground holes into areas where there is hot, solid bedrock near the Earth’s surface. Once the holes are drilled, water is blasted into the bedrock and is turned to steam by the heat of the bedrock. The superheated steam is then used to power turbines to create electricity.

Hot bedrock is widespread enough near the Earth’s surface that this technique could in theory become a common source of emissions-free electricity production, depending on the costs and environmental impacts.

Earthquake Activity Sparks Concern

The water fractures the bedrock, however, and residents near The Geysers report a sharp increase in small and medium-sized earthquakes since the project began. The U.S. Geological Survey reported six earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher in the last two weeks of July, with many additional, smaller earthquakes.

The Geysers project is located in an active seismic zone, and the increase in earthquake activity since the project began has created opposition among some area residents and environmental groups.

Government Overreaction?

Tom Tanton, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, says the federal government’s decision to shut down the project may be a case of overreacting to a minor concern. Shutting down the project is “a classic example of emotions overwhelming good science and rational thought,” Tanton said.

“The only good news in this story,” Tanton added, “is that projects that claim to be ‘green’ are finally facing some of the same siting scrutiny that is imposed on conventional power plants. Maybe that will lead ultimately—by greens and traditionalists banding together—to a redesign of the process, removing the horrendous and never-ending look at minutiae that impedes economic development.”

Ironic ‘Green’ Choices

Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, said it’s ironic for the federal government to pick a “green winner” in the energy market by directing taxpayer dollars to it, and then being forced to shut down the very same project less than a year later because of environmental worries.

Burnett takes issue with the very notion of “green” energy.

“There is no such thing as ‘green’ energy, if by ‘green’ you mean energy that has zero environmental impact,” Burnett said.

“Every form of energy will have some sort of environmental impact, some sort of harm to the environment,” Burnett added. “We need to acknowledge this reality and then make our energy choices with our eyes wide open.”

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