Rome BURNS: Was that a fracking quake?

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.


more »

Rome BURNS: Italy’s power grid, taken by storni

Robert Rand, BURN Editor 

Not long ago, as Rome passed through the final weeks of winter, a swirling black cloud flew in from the hills outside the city just before sunset. It whorled in the skies over my neighborhood, elegantly dancing to and fro and inside out. I’d never seen anything like it. My daughter thought it was a tornado. I was mesmerized. The whole thing seemed extraterrestrial.

The show took place every day in the late afternoon for more than a week. The performers were flocks of European starlings — gli storni – come to roost in Rome and elsewhere in Italy by the many, many thousands.

Despite the beauty of their aerobatics, the starlings are not particularly welcomed here.

There are some obvious reasons.


A more subtle and serious effect is the occasional blackout caused by way too many birds perching on electric power lines all at the same time. In the town of Brindisi, in the heel of southern Italy, outages once resulted when an army of starlings simultaneously took flight from their power line roost, triggering oscillations that interrupted the flow of electricity.

In Fasano, about a hundred miles north of Brindisi, the combined weight of the starlings caused high tension wires – in the words of a local newspaper – to be “sent into a tailspin.” In the Tuscan town of Montecarlo, a newspaper reported frequent blackouts and called the starlings “a scourge.” The city urged hunters to take up arms.

I checked with Terna, the Italian transmission grid operator, and was told that Rome did not experience any starling-induced blackouts this year. The city has used loudspeakers and light projectors to repel the birds with some success. A Terna spokesperson did point out that the company works with environmental groups to study the interaction between high-voltage lines and birds. One objective is to minimize avian collisions.

More than 9,000 special noise-making “dissuaders” – like this one – have been installed on the Italian grid to make power lines easier to see by birds in flight.

Bird grid dissuader


Here is Terna’s 2011 “Sustainability Report.”

By the way, “murmuration” is the word used to describe an airborne starling ballet. Daniel Butler, a writer for the Telegraph, described the science behind it this way:

Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction. As a result, tiny deviations by one bird are magnified and distorted by those surrounding it, creating rippling, swirling patterns. In other words, this is a classic case of mathematical chaos (larger shapes composed of infinitely varied smaller patterns). Whatever the science, however, it is difficult for the observer to think of it as anything other than some vast living entity.

more »

Rome BURNS – The Vatican Conclave: Green Smoke Rising

By Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Last October, at a ceremony marking the 500th anniversary of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, declared that Michaelangelo’s frescoes exude the “light of God.” He might have added that solar panels now light the Vatican.

The Sistine was the venue this week for a papal conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, was selected. The new pope, named Francis I, will be the beneficiary of Benedict’s propensity for solar energy.

Take a look at this shot from Google maps:

Vatican Solar Panels_Google Map

The circular piazza is Saint Peter’s Square. The Sistine Chapel is on the top left, above and to the right of the iconic Dome of St. Peters’ Basilica. A stone’s throw from the Sistene, on the other side of the basilica, is a large, modernistic, quasi-rectangular shaped building. It’s the Paul VI auditorium, where, when the weather is bad, the pope holds weekly audiences with members of the public. The building has a photovoltaic panel roof.

The solar panels – more than 2000 of them — were installed in 2008, with Benedict’s blessing. They produce the energy required to heat, cool and light the building. One of the project’s engineers told the Associated Press that the panels “avoid 200 tons of carbon dioxide” every year. “This is the equivalent to 70 tons of oil.”

Benedict, who assumed the papacy in 2005, has criticized “the unbalanced use of energy” in the world. He once asked Catholics to reduce carbon consumption for Lent. And during his papacy work began on a “Vatican Climate Forest” in Hungary. The idea: plant more than 100,000 trees to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Holy See emits annually. The objective: make the Vatican a carbon-neutral state.

Benedict has been called a “Green Pope.”  He is the first pontiff to have tooled around St. Peter’s square in an all electric Popemobile, donated to the Vatican last year by Renault.

The vehicle is powered by a lithium ion battery. Benedict previously had expressed interest in a solar powered vehicle.

All of which inspired one writer at The Atlantic to describe Benedict’s papacy as the embodiment of “The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit.”

more »