Skip to content

The Eden Project just suffered an earthquake. So, where are the environmentalist crowds demanding that we close down the Eden Project for creating earthquakes? For the argument that Eden is different does not work – because we are a country that values the rule of law. Indeed, that notion of fairness is central to any depiction of Britishness.

It’s also possible to say that the Eden Project suffered a little seismic tremor and it’s nothing at all to get worried about:

A scheme to provide heating for the Eden Project in Cornwall from geothermal sources has been halted after an earthquake during testing at the site.

Testing at the geothermal wells on the site was stopped after a seismic event of magnitude 1.7 was detected on Wednesday night.

We can describe a 1.7 magnitude either way: as a frightening earthquake or a seismic tremor. What we do really need to do though is be consistent in that description, whichever way we decide to go.

For the truth is that any form geological work runs the risk of tremors – or earthquakes – of this sort of magnitude. That’s just the way rocks work. This is true of mining, of geothermal work, or of fracking.

In fact, the biggest risk comes from the injection of liquids into the rock structures. In the UK the reinjection of fracking wastewater is already banned, but in geothermal power projects the entire point of the exercise is to inject those liquids into the rocks. Geothermal thus has higher risks of seismic events than fracking.

We should describe a 1.7 magnitude event as a seismic tremor, not an earthquake. Those without sophisticated technology to measure the event will not have known it happened. This is also the level of event that happens several times monthly in the UK entirely naturally: the creaks and groans of the country itself produce this sort of result up to 100 times a year. I myself sat through a 4.4 (which is hundreds of times more powerful) a few weeks back and, while it was notable, there was no spillage of the beer that was en route to my lips at that very moment. Big earthquakes are a significant problem, they most certainly are. Small ones are not – as those we’ve had from centuries of mining have not been.

One of the cornerstones of Britain is that we enjoy the rule of law. This means that no one is above it; all are treated by it in the same manner. Prime Ministers who go to parties are subject to the same pandemic controls as anyone else. What is less well understood is that events and happenings are also treated the same. The law does not distinguish between murders committed by poison, knife, gun or fist. It’s the murder that is the thing, the thing investigated, prosecuted and punished.

The same should, obviously, be true of earth tremors caused by whatever. Those caused by geothermal power, by mining, by fracking, must be treated in exactly the same way. Not just because that’s the British way, but because that’s the right way. It’s the earth moving that is the whole of the thing, not the specific cause of it doing so.

This means that either that 0.5 limit on fracking must be raised or that on geothermal dropped to that 0.5. As far as we’re aware, that would make geothermal energy – and also, probably enough, those attempts to extract lithium in Cornwall – entirely unviable. Just as the existence of the 0.5 limit makes fracking somewhat difficult.

As to what the limit should actually be, a recent paper of ours discusses this in more detail. The current best scientific view is that the red light limit, when work has to stop for evaluation, should be some two orders of magnitude below the level at which earthquakes do actual and visible damage. As that’s somewhere in the 4 to 5 magnitude range, the red light limit should be in the 2 to 3 magnitude range. This should also apply to all and any processes that produce seismic tremors – fracking and geothermal alike.

Our argument is not that fracking must be allowed to shake cathedral spires from their foundations. Rather, we must have a sensible set of rules about earth tremors, and those same rules must apply to all causes and processes that lead to earth tremors. This is, after all, the British way. We are famed for our insistence upon fair play. If it turns out that geothermal, or mineral extraction, or fracking, is not economically viable with a red light limit of a magnitude 3 tremor then so be it. We’ve tried using a sensible limit and it doesn’t work; on to the next plan. But holding one cause of possible tremors to different standards than other possible causes isn’t just silly, it’s un-British.