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'Green energy' Project gives Swiss the Shakes

Swiss prosecutors are investigating a green energy project after it was revealed that it caused earthquakes.

The inquiry was launched after experts confirmed that the Deep Heat Mining project to exploit geothermal energy near the north-west border city of Basel had caused tremors measuring 3.3 on the Richter scale.

The project involved injecting large quantities of pressurised water into three-mile-deep boreholes, where underground temperatures reach 200C. The super-heated water is circulated back to the surface where it is used to produce steam and drive a turbine to generate electricity.

But Geopower Basel, the company behind the scheme, was forced to stop pumping water into the hot rock layer following a series of powerful earthquakes, which were felt up to 10 miles away.

Jean Ueberschlag, the mayor of nearby Saint Louis in France, wrote to the Swiss authorities demanding a halt to the experiment. He said: "You don't have the right to play with the safety of our populations."

Prosecutors are now investigating everyone involved in the project to determine possible criminal responsibility, amid allegations that project officials knew there was a risk of triggering earthquakes.

The four quakes, the latest of which took place two weeks ago, caused panic in Basel, Switzerland's third largest city, as people sought shelter from what appeared to be a natural disaster.

Houses and other property sustained only minor damage but seismologists, who -confirmed that the quakes were caused by the project, warned the local population that stronger seismic activity could occur even though the project has been temporarily halted.

Basel is one of the areas in Switzerland most prone to seismic activity. In 1356, the city was almost entirely destroyed by a quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale. Swiss prosecutors say that all partners in the scheme could face charges of causing material damages and "spreading fear" among the population.

Peter Gill, a spokesman for Basel prosecutors, said: "We are investigating everyone involved in the project and experts are documenting the damages to determine whether house owners can sue."

It was revealed that project officials were warned of the possibility of seismic activity before injecting the pressurised water into the hot rock layer, but according to a company spokesman, it was not expected that the quakes would be felt on the surface.

However, a 2006 report by the Swiss Seismological Service, a government body, warned that the drilling could "enhance the probability of occurrence of an earthquake". The report concluded that "the seismic risk in Basel cannot be underestimated".

Nicholas Deichmann of the Swiss Seismological Institute said: "One cannot rule out further tremors of similar strength, if not stronger, because the water is in the rock and will only disappear gradually."

A group of independent experts has been asked to prepare a detailed report on the earthquakes and advise the government if and how the project could be resumed.

With strong opposition to nuclear power, the Deep Heat Mining project was widely embraced in Switzerland as an environmentally-friendly and risk-free renewable source of energy. It is partially financed by the Swiss government and is meant to provide electricity for 10,000 homes and heat for over 2,700. It has so far cost about \u20AC40 million. Public enthusiasm for the project has dropped since the tremors.

Similar projects have been tested in Australia, Japan and the United States, but none of them caused the same reaction. Earthquakes of such magnitude are not known to have been caused by human activity before.

By Bojan Pancevski in Vienna, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:17am GMT 19/02/2007

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