Sheep and geothermal
Sheep grazing next to a geothermal project in New Zealand. Ryan Masumoto.

Fracking not needed for geothermal development in Hawaii

Watching from afar, it seems to me that the community in Hawaii is grappling with fears about hydraulic fracturing –or fracking --that are based on misinformation.

Sadiq Zarrouk

Watching from afar, it seems to me that the community in Hawaii is grappling with fears about hydraulic fracturing –or fracking—that are based on misinformation.

Part of the problem seems to be that the bad publicity arising from its use by the oil and gas industries is being conflated with what people are imagining—falsely—will be done in order to develop Hawaii’s geothermal resources. That has prompted bad legislation such as County Bill 129 on Hawaii island that attempts to block fracking –and in so doing over-reaches in ways that can seriously hinder the drive to develop geothermal as an alternative to Hawaii’s dangerous reliance on imported fossil fuels. Hawaii is incredibly lucky to have a reliable firm power option available and it would be very damaging to its long term interests to let over-heated rhetoric get in the way of smart development of geothermal energy. 

I am a scientist who works and lectures on geothermal issues and projects. I have done some preliminary investigation of Hawaii’s geothermal resources and I would like to help correct some of the more serious miss-conceptions about fracking as it relates –or does not relate—to geothermal development in Hawaii:

Fracking does NOT normally play a part in conventional geothermal development. This is true of geothermal power development in New Zealand, Hawaii and twenty two countries worldwide. It is my professional view that there is not going to be any fracking in future geothermal development in Hawaii.

Get the facts about what is going on elsewhere. If County Bills such as Bill 129 are inspired by what other regions have done to protect against fracking, it is clear that those who crafted the legislation did not get their facts right. The UK, New Zealand and Canada referenced in Bill 129 have NOT banned fracking. The UK’s moratorium on fracking was lifted in December 2012.

Do not inhibit an efficient start up. Drilling new wells does call for a great deal of water but it is a temporary phase of 2-3 months. To limit its use is to get in the way of an efficient start-up.
The limited use of chemicals for certain operations is not fracking.  It is needed for cleaning, improvement of permeability and prevention of mineral deposits to keep the plant running well.
Untrained administrators should not be making decisions about plant operations. It is deeply worrying when a law gives an administrator without the appropriate science and geothermal engineering credentials or training the power to shut down operations.  This is what County Bill 129 does. Typically, the drilling inspector is someone who has the necessary qualifications and has been trained for the job. That is certainly true in New Zealand, for example. Vesting that kind of power in an administrator without the relevant experience does not make for good decisions or good business. The community will not be well-served.

An administrator who is untrained in geothermal operations could choose, because of Bill 129, to shut down a geothermal development site because he or she sees equipment that has the potential to be used for fracking. The way the bill is written this could happen even if there is no fracking taking place or being planned.
Oil, Gas and Coalbed methane companies use fracking. Because the Hawaii islands are volcanic, there are no likely hydrocarbons to be accessed using fracking.  Fracking is normally carried out after the completion of drilling by oil, gas and coalbed methane companies. These are the industries that use fracking; not geothermal.

County Bill 129 may have been prompted by genuine concern and alarm. But it has been shaped by bad information and a poor understanding of the likely course of geothermal development in Hawaii. Geothermal is a renewable energy source that could give Hawaii the energy independence it has been aspiring to for years. Now is not the time to let Hawaii’s push in that direction be stifled by bad laws.

Dr. Zarrouk is a Geothermal Reservoir Engineer and a Member of the Board of Directors of the International Geothermal Association. He has seventeen years of experience in the field and has studied Hawaii’s geothermal resources. He has published extensively in refereed journals and conference proceedings and run several advanced geothermal professional training courses. He consults for clients globally, including Innovations Development Group in Hawaii, Contact Energy in New Zealand, Geodynamics in Australia and more.