Voices: Geologists on the wrong side of the law

by Stephen Testa
Friday, January 20, 2012

Many of L'Aquila's buildings were reduced to rubble during the April 6 earthquake. INGV

We live in a litigious society. Engineering and environmental geologists are no strangers to the legal system. They frequently deal with issues relating to geologic hazards such as active faults and unstable ground, the release of contaminants into the environment and numerous other circumstances. But for the most part, geoscientists tend to avoid legal battles. Is that changing?

In the last couple of years, several events have brought geologists into new legal territory. Geologists have recently been accused of potentially inducing earthquakes, of not predicting natural hazards, of potentially adversely impacting water quality, of spying and of engaging in indelicate e-mail discussions and alleged misdealings with climate change data.

Are geologists at fault?

On more than one occasion in the pursuit of energy, geologists have been cited for inducing earthquakes. First was a case of enhanced geothermal development in Switzerland that came to a head last December. Enhanced geothermal essentially fractures bedrock and then circulates water through the cracks to produce steam, which in turn is utilized to produce electricity. However, by its very nature, fracturing creates earthquakes, albeit mostly of small magnitude. Last year, a case was brought against geologist Markus Haring for inducing some 30 earthquakes, the largest a magnitude 3.4, through drilling and injecting pressurized water into rocks 5 kilometers below the surface to generate electricity. Damage to buildings in the region was estimated at $9 million. Although Haring was acquitted last December, the enhanced geothermal project was terminated.

The Swiss case had significant ramifications, and sent a shot over the bow to those in favor of enhanced geothermal, considered a clean and virtually limitless energy source. In the U.S., the Department of Energy had provided more than $100 million for enhanced geothermal. One of the big projects was the AltaRock Energy project in an area called The Geysers, about 160 kilometers north of San Francisco, Calif. The Geysers comprise the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, and supply one-fifth of the renewable energy produced in California. The AltaRock project is — actually was — President Obama’s first major test to advance geothermal energy generation.

But in December 2009, immediately following the shutdown of the project in Switzerland, AltaRock Energy removed its drill rig and informed the government that the project would be abandoned. The Geysers' geothermal fields are lined with active faults, and minor earthquakes have been induced by the geothermal operations there; it appears that the potential reward just wasn’t worth the risks for AltaRock. The liabilities associated with the subsurface fracturing of rock present a significant setback in our search for renewable energy. Thus the efforts for more renewable energy will obviously be hampered and derailed with these legal setbacks.

Geothermal isn’t the only form of energy under attack. Another recent case centers on whether drilling a natural gas well caused four small earthquakes — none above magnitude 2.8 — in the vicinity of Cleburne, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth. It did not help that one of the earthquakes occurred during the meeting of the city council while the council was holding an emergency session to discuss this very topic. This part of the Lone Star State had not had an earthquake in its 140-year history. The alleged culprit is either a practice called fracking — which is the injection of water, with added chemicals, at high pressures in order to fracture the underlying shale layers and release natural gas trapped in the rocks — or the reinjection of wastewater back into a depleted well, which is what one study found, as EARTH reported in June.

For now, gas production continues in Texas, but this issue and the issue of how fracking affects groundwater are in the headlines elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania, New York and other parts of the Northeast. As of 2005, fracking was deemed exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but renewed interest on the impact of fracking on water quality is being re-evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency. We haven’t heard the end of this issue.

The question of whether geologists can be held responsible for inducing earthquakes is a bit different from the question that arose in Italy late last spring: Can a geologist be held liable for not predicting an earthquake or any other natural hazard that occurs? Italian geologists, seismologists, volcanologists, engineers and the like were threatened with charges of manslaughter for failing to predict the magnitude-6.3 earthquake in L’Aquila on April 6, 2009. The following statement was provided by the Major Risk Committee, an advisory group to the Civil Protection Agency, in reference to tremors that preceded the April 6 seismic event: “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is ongoing discharge of energy.” This was followed by such statements as “a major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out” and “Because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake.”

Whether these and other statements offered prior to the earthquake were adequate, appropriate or sufficient became questionable in the eyes of blind justice. Do the Italian geologists deserve to be under investigation for manslaughter for failure to forecast the earthquake? My opinion: No. We will see how it plays out in the courts.

Are geologists the new James Bond?

Last summer, American geologist Xue Feng was sentenced to eight years in a Chinese prison for alleged oil espionage. Apparently Feng received documents on the geological conditions of onshore oil wells and a database on some 30,000 oil and gas wells. The wells belonged to China National Petroleum Corporation and listed subsidiary PetroChina, Ltd. Feng’s behavior was not unusual, except that China contends that the information was obtained illegally and allegedly sold to IHS Energy, a U.S. consultancy firm and Feng’s employer. On July 5, 2010, China ignored a personal appeal from President Obama and sentenced Feng to prison for buying confidential information about China’s oil industry. Feng was also fined $30,000 for attempting to obtain and traffic state secrets.

But regardless of the eventual outcome — assuming China has an appeal process or can be persuaded by Feng’s supporters to reconsider its verdict — there is little doubt that we will be seeing more of this type of behavior as certain countries and companies become ever more aggressive about obtaining available resources and supply lines to fulfill their growth and expansion plans. The Feng incident, which dragged on in the courts for more than two and a half years, also sent warning signals to foreign businesses that may not be familiar with security laws germane to other countries and jurisdictions.

Despite China’s displeasure with Feng’s alleged misbehavior, China was alleged to be behind several spying events of its own, in the form of cyber-attacks. Last January, the Christian Science Monitor reported that at least three U.S. oil companies — Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips — were the target of a series of previously undisclosed cyber-attacks. There is a growing level of sophistication in the global war of Internet espionage. These new types of attack include custom-made spyware that is virtually undetectable by antivirus and other electronic defenses traditionally used by corporations. These new cyber-burglary tools pose a serious threat to corporate America and the long-term competitiveness of the nation, according to experts in this field. We will need to stay tuned for the sequel in these unfolding cyber-spies reports.

And in the realm of cyber-spying, there was Climategate, although the emphasis has not been on the cyber-thieves who stole the information but rather the information itself. Late in 2009, hackers released a thousand private e-mails written by prominent climatologists. The case threatened to discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and threatened the integrity of the scientific process as a whole. The e-mails exposed the hyper-political nature of the debate on climate change, and caused the general public to be more confused than ever. In the past year, a series of independent reviews of the e-mails and of the situation has cleared the climatologists of any real legal wrongdoing, but damage to the integrity of climate science remains. Interestingly, the cyber-thieves appear to have made their getaway without legal repercussions.

Amid the ongoing pursuit of resources and clean energy, as well as public perception on what we do or don’t know, we will undoubtedly see more geologists involved in legal wrangling in the future. Thus, what we do, how we do it, how we document it and how we relate it to the public becomes increasingly important.

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