On June 22, Snopes.com released an article, debunking any connection between drilling activities at the Puna Geothermal Venture and the recent lava flow that has devastated much of the lower Puna region of the Big Island of Hawaii. In its alleged “fact checking”, Snopes referred to my research published in two articles on Exopolitics.org where I discussed the Puna Geothermal Venture and how the activities conducted there led to earthquakes, weakened the underlying geology, and was a contributing factor to the recent massive lava flows .
Since my two articles were published on May 15 and May 27, the lava flow has extended into the Kapoho Bay area destroying over 500 homes, filling in the Bay and is now threatening adjoining areas in lower Puna. The destruction of homes caused by the massive lava flow has rapidly grown and passed a critical Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) threshold.
FEMA has moved significant resources into the area to help those that have lost homes, have been forced to move into government funded shelters, and/or seeking financial assistance to cover losses.
A growing number of people have begun questioning whether the disaster was triggered in any way by activities conducted at Puna Geothermal Venture, to the extent that the fact checkers at Snopes decided it was an important issue to address.
Snopes began its article by challenging the claim that a form of fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing) was occurring at the Puna Geothermal Venture as evidenced by the earthquakes occurring there. It boldly asserted that fracking, the injection of highly pressured liquids to fracture subterranean rocks in order to extract oil and gas, was not occurring at Puna Geothermal Venture:
The claims laid out by YourNewsWire and Exopolitics suffer from several factual, scientific, and logical flaws, but chief among them is the fact that fracking — a process utilized by oil companies searching for fossil fuels — does not occur anywhere on Hawaii, as there are no petroleum reserves for which to frack.
To get around this, Exoplanet [Exopolitics] claims that the processes employed at PGV are in essence identical to fracking, because the geothermal plant operates in a fashion that requires re-injecting a liquid into the ground.
Snopes cites Hawaii Electric, which was Puna Geothermal Venture’s (PGV) main customer, to explain the drilling process that was being used:
PGV is a geothermal energy conversion plant bringing steam and hot liquid up through underground wells. The hot liquid (brine) is not used for electricity at this time. The steam is directed to a turbine generator that produces electricity.
The exhaust steam from this turbine is used to vaporize (heat) an organic working fluid, which drives a second turbine, generating additional electricity. The condensed steam from the organic fluid heat exchanger is re-injected into the ground through reinjection wells along with the brine.
The main point made here by Snopes is that because highly pressured liquids are re-injected in order to stabilize the underlying geology by maintaining an equilibrium among different elements, that this is very different to fracking, which injects pressurized liquids with the primary purpose of destabilizing or fracturing underlying rocks.
While these appear to be very different goals at a prima facie level, what Snopes failed to point out is that rocks that are hit by pressurized liquids to generate heat, can be easily fractured as a byproduct of the process, resulting in something not too dissimilar to outright fracking.
For this and other reasons, multiple experts have pointed out the similarities between fracking and geothermal energy production, and the dangers posed by both:
The basic premise of fracking tends to be the same across all industries that use it. In fact, the process is so similar that a new trend is developing whereby geothermal companies are seeking to minimize their up-front costs, including drilling costs, by using wells that have been abandoned by oil and gas companies. While the abandoned wells may no longer have oil and gas resources, they may be able to generate the hot water and steam required by geothermal plants.
In distinguishing between fracking and geothermal energy production, Snopes furthermore ignored a Duke University study, cited in my May 15 article, which showed that the re-injected liquid was being pumped into areas that showed a “high fracture density”:
The region of high fracture density is also consistent with the areas of the highest fluid production at PGV…. The production records are proprietary to the PGV parent company, Ormat, so tables and diagrams are not included in the dissertation. However, it is indicted that wells that penetrate the area where we calculate the greatest fracture density have higher fluid flow than elsewhere in the PGV lease. [pp. 55-56]
The conclusion that can be drawn from the Duke University study is that the functional equivalence of fracking, which might be described as “enhanced geothermal system” or “geothermal fracking”, was occurring at the Puna Geothermal Venture via the re-injection of pressurized fluids into the wells and surrounding subterranean rocks that showed “high fracture density”.
While this appears to be a technical and semantic squabble with Snopes over the differences between the effects of injection and re-injection of pressured liquids deep into the geology of an area for purposes of either fracking rocks or generating steam from heated rocks, the key question here is whether such activity causes earthquakes. If so, the next question is whether the resulting earthquakes weaken or fractures the underlying geology in ways that can facilitate volcanic lava flows as we are currently witnessing in Puna.
These are questions that Snopes did not want to acknowledge, as the famed “fact checker” went on to assert that the earthquake activity was not a result of Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) activities, but was a result of natural geological processes occurring in the East Rift Zone.
Are there earthquakes in the area of PGV? Certainly. There are earthquakes all over the volcanically active Big Island. Is it shocking that there would be earthquakes focused in the (extremely general) region of PGV? Not at all — recall that PGV’s location was selected due to its proximity to a major fault system, thereby allowing water to flow through the ground and come in contact with the volcanically heated region below.
You cannot use PGV’s location (intentionally placed in an area where earthquakes are common and lava flows likely) as evidence that it caused earthquakes and lava flows. That not how this works.
The problem here is that Snopes also failed to understand the scientific literature that was cited which stated quite clearly that earthquake activity near Puna Geothermal Venture was correlated with the injection of liquids deep into the ground.
I provided a graph (see below) with a link to its source which showed the clear correlation between the fluid injection at PGV with earthquake activity. Snopes ignored the graph which was based on data provided by the Advanced National Seismic System and the Environmental Protection Agency in a 100 month study examining the liquid injection at PGV from January 2005 to June 2013, and its correlation with earthquake activity.
The study concluded:
A longitudinal analysis year-over-year reflects a trend that correlates the fluid injection rates at PGV with the seismic activity at PGV. While this correlation cannot be matched each day-by-day, month-by-month, it is evident the year-over-year trend follows the same pattern and when compared over the past 100 months there is a correlation in the trend.
As for the correlation between the injection (or re-injection as Snopes wants to emphasize) of highly pressurized fluids into PGV wells, the study showed unambiguously how this correlated with earthquake activity at four wells:
There are four wells at PGV that inject high pressure fluid into the Earth’s crust. Of these four wells, the one that injected the most fluid is “KS-13”, with 58% of the total fluid injection at PGV since Jan-2010. The graph … reflects the correlation between well KS-13 and earthquakes at PGV since 2010 over a wider geographic view [see graph below].
In addition, the 2010 Duke University study, found a correlation between the geothermal activities at PGV and earthquakes that raised a possible linkage:
In the Puna geothermal field, the dominant pattern of seismicity aligns parallel to the Kilauea Lower East Rift Zone. The majority of earthquakes occurs at 2-3 km depth, possibly associated with activity at the geothermal production plant.
While the Duke study was cautious in raising a possible connection between earthquakes and activity at the geothermal plant, it nevertheless legitimized such a linkage as a reasonable scientific hypothesis based on the correlations found in local seismic activity and liquid injection occurring at PGV.
Note that this is very different to what Snopes did in boldly asserting no linkage between earthquakes in Puna and activities at PGV. Essentially, Snopes ignored scientific data that found significant correlations between what PGV was doing with its re-injection of pressurized liquids deep into the Earth, and earthquake activity.
Snopes set up a straw man argument by exclusively focusing on the idea that my research claimed that fracking techniques used by the oil industry, was occurring at PGV. As pointed out previously, there are important similarities between the techniques used by the oil and geothermal industries, even though the intent may be very different.
More importantly, Snopes ignored my primary argument that PGV was responsible for generating earthquakes through its liquid injection practices deep into the subterranean region of the East Rift Zone.
Regardless of whether we describe such practices as “enhanced geothermal”, “geothermal fracking” or merely re-injection of previously extracted liquids from the Earth’s interior along with water (as Snopes emphasizes), the main point is that PGV activity was causing earthquakes in the East Rift Zone.
Multiple scientific studies show that small earthquakes caused by geothermal activity can trigger larger earthquakes. According to a geologist questioned by Scientific American about deep drilling techniques used by geothermal projects:
The more important issue is how big a fracture is—how big an earthquake are they generating. If they intersect an existing fracture, and it’s ready to go, they can trigger a bigger earthquake.
A Popular Science article elaborated on the damage that could arise from earthquakes triggered by geothermal activities:
Geologists always expect that the water-infusion step will create some seismic activity but, as the Swiss fiasco proved, the tremors can cause real damage. Drilling-induced fractures can interact with existing seismic systems … to produce quakes. “The size and number of quakes depends on how much fluid you pump in and how fast,” says Colin Williams, a scientist on the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake hazards team. “
In conclusion, the Snopes article’s attempt to debunk evidence of PGV in any way being linked with or being responsible for earthquake activity in the East Rift Zone, fails to be persuasive. Extensive scientific research shows how seismic activity generated by geothermal practices can trigger large earthquakes, and how this can significantly impact the local geology, which in the East Rift Zone would include stimulating lava flows and impacting the Hilina Fault System.
Snopes conclusion: “claims that credible scientific evidence links Hawaii’s 2018 lower Puna eruption to fracking — a practice that is not, even by any tangentially related definition, occurring on Hawaii’s big island — are false” is very misleading. It ignores the similarities between fracking and enhanced geothermal drilling when it comes to the injection of highly pressured liquids into deep underground rock structures.
Furthermore, Snopes is distracting readers from the key issue of PGV activities leading to earthquakes, which in turn facilitated volcanic eruptions and devastating lava flows.
Given the demonstrated correlation between earthquakes in the Puna region and PGV activities, then it is fair to conclude that PGV directly contributed in some degree to the current lava flow outbreak that has devastated the lower Puna region of Hawaii.
Further research and investigation is needed to determine the extent of Puna Geothermal Venture responsibility for the lava flow impacting lower Puna, its legal liabilities, and an alleged deeper conspiracy to destabilize the Hilina fault system.
© Michael E. Salla, Ph.D. Copyright Notice
[Note: Audio Version of above article is available here or can be viewed below]
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