Should we sell our souls to solve the climate crisis?

Geothermal heat could help ensure a greener future for us all. But there is a catch

Steam escaping from a fumarole in a geothermal area  in Iceland. File photograph: Adrian Studer/Getty Images

Steam escaping from a fumarole in a geothermal area in Iceland. File photograph: Adrian Studer/Getty Images

 

If the tools to fix the global environmental crisis lay in the hands of those profiting the most from its proliferation, what cost would ceding control over our long-term environmental security to the bad guys really amount to if the end goal is mutually beneficial to all?

Geothermal heat – generated deep in the Earth’s core – offers a “baseload”, or constant supply, of heat we already know how to convert to energy efficiently. The problem is access. The Earth’s core is 6,000 degrees Celsius. It’s almost as hot down there as it is on the surface of the sun. The core is also approximately 2 miles beneath us.

Neither heat nor distance present insurmountable tasks though. What’s needed is the will to shift the focus of so much research expertise and capital investment away from fossil fuels towards the potential of the heat beneath our feet.

This clean energy source is present in such mass quantities that it could satisfy current global energy demands met by fossil fuels 10 times over. The energy source has a characteristic both wind and solar energy lack: it is constant. Not only that, but it would require far less land to operate than the thousands of miles taken up by windmills or solar panels.

Machiavellian is too vanilla an adjective to describe how this very promising solution to the global climate crisis could be realised.

Look deep down towards the Earth’s magma core, towards the fiery depths of hell, and we find geothermal heat, a game-changing solution if the right focus, investment and expertise were to be reallocated to those working hard to develop and innovate this energy source.

However, the only industry with the skills, technology and infrastructure needed to get to the bottom of the geothermal dilemma is oil and gas.

Oil and gas may be the only industry equipped to provide the momentum required to push for geothermal in a serious way

Advances in drilling for oil and gas, particularly in “hydraulic fracturing”, or fracking, are directly transferable to drilling for heat. They need to go a lot deeper to reach the “baseload”, or constant geothermal heat supply. But sophisticated drilling is increasingly complex. Drilling very deep wells is what the oil and gas industry has quietly been getting more efficient at, in regions like Texas where cities and towns have literally had their downtown areas dug up before the community’s eyes, upon the discovery by local authorities that there’s oil in dem dere city halls and historical places of interest. The city of Denton, north of Dallas, is the most high-profile example in recent years.

Limited potential

The potential of geothermal is well understood, but it remains limited to places where heat is naturally close to the surface. Like Iceland. There, they have been using heat derived from the Earth’s core as an energy source for more than a century.

However, Iceland is one giant volcano and geothermal energy can be accessed by drilling just a few feet down in some places on the island. So getting to it isn’t an issue. Elsewhere, access, or lack thereof, continues to hamper progress.

Yet the kind of tools that can operate in high temperatures and under extremely heavy pressure are being developed in the oil and gas industry. The only difference is the goal of the drilling operation.

It’s not that simple of course. Focused investment, support and funding are needed for existing energy research groups to move into an area where many questions remain unanswered.

If foolish pride is all that’s at stake, it’s a no-brainer: the end justifies the means. The history books would be written by the “villains” turned “heroes” who “saved our planet”.

However, any group that appears to “fix” the global climate emergency through advanced clean energy technologies would only do so with a price tag, and probably legal guarantees that maintain its monopoly – financially and geopolitically – over our energy future.

Oil and gas may be the only industry equipped to provide the momentum required to push for geothermal in a serious way. But even then, their expertise only goes so far. A political culture of bipartisanship is needed too.

Environmentalists and fracking experts would need to bury the hatchet – both having skillsets the other lacks. The same can be said for quantum physicists and directional drillers.

Even if oil and gas get all the credit in the history books for this, would it still have been worth it? Of course it would. All potential solutions are now on the table and anyone who puts their own ethics ahead of a viable plan is the most unethical of us all.

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