February 2007

What's new in exploration

Predicting earthquakes: Geothermal energy revisited

Vol. 228 No. 2  

Predicting earthquakes. Twice before in this column, I have promoted the idea that a 1-800 (toll free) number might prove to be correlative with earthquake prediction. The cost would be small, and if put in a telephone-rich, earthquake-prone region such as California, it wouldn't be too many years before you could judge the experiment a success or not. It might save many lives.

If a correlation was found between the number of calls in an area (down to the prefix-number level), and the occurrence of a quake, at a later date we could focus on why such a correlation exists. It is not good science to demand to know �why� before you determine �whether.� The usual suspects include: strange behavior in animals; well flows and artesian spring flows; creepy feelings and �space aliens told me so.� Earthquakes have been successfully predicted in China, mostly on the behavior of wells and springs, saving thousands of lives.

Against this backdrop, a wonderfully odd press release caught my eye. Under the headline, �Geologists looking for ways to mitigate earthquake disaster in Nepal,� was the subtitle, �Snake behavior may predict quakes.� At a press conference in Kathmandu, associate professor Hari Krishna Shrestha of the National Disaster Study Center suggested that snake behavior should be studied as an earthquake predictor because �animals are sensitive toward electromagnetic waves that occur prior to an earthquake.�

Professor Jeev Raj Pokharel said that the Department of Earthquakes in China documented peculiar snake behavior as an earthquake predictor. He presented a study during a program organized by the Nepal Engineering College on Dec. 25�26, 2006. He said the Chinese study revealed that snakes could sense an earthquake three to five days before it struck, from about 120 km away from the epicenter.

I have no idea whether this would hold up to scrutiny by peers, but correlation of quakes and unusual behaviors and events ought to be systematically investigated, given the potential benefit. Doing it by an automated phone system would be cheap, easy and virtually impossible to fake. I suspect that it's only fear for career, or fear of ridicule, that stops us from doing so.

The drillbit gets the blame. A mud volcano in Indonesia, known locally as �Lusi,� has been spewing steaming mud since May 29 last year, submerging four villages, fields and factories. It erupted from a gas well near Surabaya, East Java, operated by Lapindo Brantas Inc. As many as 13,000 people have fled their homes and may be permanently displaced.

Research conducted by a team led by Richard Davies, from the University of Durham's Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems in northeastern England, determined the disaster was �most probably� caused by the gas well. It appears in the February issue of GSA Today. The British researchers used satellite images to conduct their study.

The researchers said that the eruption �appears to have been triggered by drilling overpressured porous and permeable limestones at a depth of around 2,830 m (7,730 ft).� The volcano has been spewing between 7,000 and 150,000 m 3 (245,000 and 5.25 million ft 3 ) of mud every day. The pressures, coupled with the local geology, suggest the flow will continue for many months and possibly years, the study warns. In the coming months, subsidence several miles wide will occur, and a crater around the main vent is likely to form. An area of at least 10 km 2 (4 mi 2 ) around the volcano will be uninhabitable for years.

Davies said the case in Indonesia is similar to a blowout offshore Brunei in 1979. �Just as is most probably the case with Lusi, the Brunei event was caused by drilling, and it took an international oil company almost 30 years, 20 relief wells and monitoring before the eruption stopped,� he said.

According to the report, too much openhole was exposed for the pressures encountered. �Rocks fractured and a mix of mud and water worked its way to the surface. Our research brings us to the conclusion that the incident was most probably the result of drilling,� Davies said.

The oil company, Lapindo Brantas, said the volcano was a �natural disaster� unrelated to drilling activities. Rather, it is because of an earthquake that occurred May 27 near the ancient city of Yogyakarta, killing about 6,000 people.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered Lapindo to pay $420 million in compensation and costs related to the mud flow.

Geothermal energy anew. A comprehensive new study of the potential of geothermal energy found that it could supply �a substantial portion� of the electricity the US will need in the future, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. An 18-member panel composed of energy experts, geologists, drilling specialists and others, led by MIT, prepared the 400-plus-page study, titled The future of geothermal energy. Sponsored by the Department of Energy, it is the first study in 30 years to take a new look at geothermal, and it gives a very optimistic view of its potential.

Meanwhile, the world's most ambitious private geothermal project is plodding forward against tough odds. As previously reported here, Geodynamics Ltd's Cooper basin project has completed the Habanero-1 well at more than 14,000 ft, after some tough setbacks. The massive fracturing job (also known as the heat exchanger) went well, according to microseismic monitoring and mapping techniques. However, after two sidetracks and considerable bad luck, Habanero-2 has been suspended just short of its goal. It may never get completed. Assuming the Australian company can find a suitable drilling rig, either for hire or for purchase, Habanero-3 will be spudded midyear.

The amount of recoverable geothermal energy in Cooper basin is perhaps the largest in the world, estimated at about 40 billion boe. This, plus potential federal help and the �success� of the project, has led to a proliferation of 14 companies pursuing 96 geothermal licenses in Australia. Their cumulative five-year work programs represent more than a half-billion dollars in expenditures, according to a GeoDynamics document.

Adding to this odd spate of related geothermal activity, the Texas General Land Office in January made more than 11,000 submerged acres available for geothermal energy leasing in a manner similar to oil and gas leasing�a first for the state. The minimum bid is just $2 an acre. The tracts range from 1,174 to 2,480 acres and are located in Jefferson, Galveston, Chambers, Calhoun, Jackson, Nueces and Kleberg counties. . WO

Comments? Write: fischerp@worldoil.com

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