Robert Rand, BURN Editor

I was sitting in my dentist’s office here in Rome a few weeks ago, watching an overhead television set while Dr. Pasquale drilled into a molar. The screen showed some sort of public gathering, with various orators and a guy playing the guitar. Behind them was a sign that said, “Per non dimenticare.” Do not forget.

I had forgotten. At the end of May, 2012, two earthquakes hit Emilia Romagna, a region in northern Italy that includes Bologna. The first quake measured 6.0. The second had a magnitude of 5.8. Twenty four people died, several hundred were injured, and 15,000 people were forced from their homes.

Emilia quakeThe event on my dentist’s television screen commemorated the first anniversary of the Emilia earthquake. Newspaper coverage of the anniversary included something that caught my eye: there was speculation that fracking may have caused the quake.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the technology that injects a highly pressurized cocktail of fluids and substances into the ground to extract natural gas from shale formations. It is a controversial issue in the U.S. and elsewhere (here in Europe, fracking has been banned in France and in Bulgaria).  Proponents say fracking is a safe and effective way to collect shale gas, which America has in abundance.

Opponents – and there are many – say fracking’s mix of water and chemicals is toxic and harms the environment. Fracking was an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, the subject of a recent movie starring Matt Damon, and the focus of one of Alex’s stories here on BURN.

Fracking has also been implicated as a trigger for earthquakes, and that gets us back to what happened in Emilia Romagna one year ago. In the weeks following the Emilia tremors, the Italian press reported that local residents had blamed fracking for what happened. Emilia Romagna has natural gas reserves which had been conventionally tapped in years past, but not with fracking. People were suspicious nonetheless.

“The most popular term in Italy today is ‘fracking’ and in recent days there has been a lot of speculation about fracking and the earthquake in Emilia Romagna.” That was the immediate post-earthquake pronouncement of Beppe Grillo, a popular anti-establishment-comedian-turned-politician who scored big in recent parliamentary elections. When Grillo speaks, people listen. Last month, on the anniversary date, Grillo reiterated his concerns regarding fracking. “The Emilia earthquake? I think the holes they drill while searching for gas are partially to blame.”

The Italian Ministry of Development says fracking has never been used in Emilia.

And it’s not even clear whether fracking is used much at all in Italy. Maria Rita D’Orsogna, a California State University-Northridge physicist and activist who opposes fracking, told me she has found only two documented incidents of fracking in Italy, and neither was in Emilia Romagna. “I do not know if anybody has any real proof,” she said regarding Grillo’s assertions.

D’Orsogna says there is the lack of transparency in Italy about natural gas development and fracking, and that’s what especially bothers her. In a contribution to Grillo’s blog, she wrote: “Given that people are talking about it all over the world and given that people want answers, do the people currently governing us…want to say something about how Italy is positioned in relation to the possibility of carrying out fracking in our land?”

At the request of the president of the Emila Romagna region, an international commission has been set up to investigate any possible links between fracking and the 2012 earthquakes.