Forest Service Considers Thousands Of Acres For Geothermal Leasing

Geologists Dave Tucker (left) and Pete Stelling (right) at the Mount Baker hot springs in Washington's Cascade Mountains. The Forest Service says the springs will not be disturbed, but they are within the large tract of federal land that could one day be open for geothermal development.Ashley Ahearn
Geologists Dave Tucker (left) and Pete Stelling (right) at the Mount Baker hot springs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The Forest Service says the springs will not be disturbed, but they are within the large tract of federal land that could one day be open for geothermal development.
Ashley Ahearn


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

The volcanic ridges of the Cascades have long been poked and prodded by people who want to know what kind of geothermal energy they’ll find beneath the surface.

But many of the Northwest’s hot spots are on public lands. And in some cases, federal land managers have prevented access by companies seeking to convert that magmatic force into clean electricity.

That could soon change. The U.S. Forest Service is pursuing plans to make more than 80,000 acres in Washington’s Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest available for lease to energy companies. A final decision on that is expected as early as this month.

Companies wanting to develop geothermal power on federal lands would then undergo a full environmental review for each proposed project. Those studies would take into account the potential seismic risk,  vehicle traffic and transmission lines that could be associated with a geothermal power plant.

The development of geothermal power is under way in some parts of the Northwest, which the industry regards as a new frontier. Within that clean-energy frontier, Mount Baker is an outpost sentinel on its northern edge. Its steaming crater and the hot springs on the mountain’s eastern flanks are drawing attention from would-be geothermal developers.

Using steam from deep beneath the earth’s surface to spin turbines and generate electricity is not a new idea. But as more and more renewable energy comes on line, geothermal delivers in a way that intermittent sources like wind and solar do not: it provides a consistent source of what industry insiders call “baseload” power. That’s appealing to utilities like Snohomish PUD.

“A baseload renewable resource is something to treasure. We view it as a very attractive possibility,” said Adam Lewis with the Snohomish Public Utility District. The district has spent $5 million researching geothermal developments in Washington and is interested in building a traditional geothermal plant in the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest to power roughly 20,000 homes.

The Forest Service’s move has raised concerns about negative impacts on natural ecosystems. Fifteen conservation groups have submitted a joint lettercommenting on the service’s proposed lease.

“We should be looking at everything but is this really where we need to be looking and if we are, we need to be real careful going up into wild rivers or intact forests,” said Tom Uniack, Conservation Director for Washington Wild.

The groups pushed for stronger protections on rivers and roadless sections of the forest, as well as certain forested areas that provide old growth habitat for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets — two bird species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

How big is the Northwest’s geothermal potential?

California leads the world in geothermal power generation. Development has also grown in Nevada and Utah, but the Northwest lags behind.

Despite the region’s iconic volcanoes that rise up from the Cascade Range through Oregon and Washington, the geothermal potential in the region varies greatly. In Washington, hot spots appear to be limited to areas immediately surrounding volcanoes like Rainier and Baker.

Less than 5% of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of latitude 45N, according to research from the US Geological Survey. Less than 5% of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of latitude 45N, according to research from the US Geological Survey.  USGS

Research from the U.S. Geological Survey shows extensive hydrothermal heat discharge in large stretches of the Cascades in Oregon, an indication of geothermal potential, particularly in the state’s southern and eastern stretches. But those heat signatures drop off as you head north of Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters peaks.


In Washington, the places that could provide geothermal power appear to be even scarcer. Steve Ingebritsen, a geologist with USGS, found that less than 5 percent of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of the Oregon/Washington border.

“Maybe that’s because the high rainfall and snowfall and snowmelt and fractures near the surface are allowing the water to percolate down and mask the geothermal indicators we’d be looking for,” said Pete Stelling, a geology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. “But we don’t really know. We’re still on the hunt right now.”

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has analyzed temperatures in more than 450 wells around the state and found similar results.


The Washington Department of Natural Resources has analyzed more than 450 wells to chart subterranean temperatures around the state.


But that doesn’t mean it’s game over in the pursuit of geothermal energy in the Evergreen State.

“Although the geothermal potential of Washington is lower than other West Coast states, such as Nevada, Oregon and California, there are still areas of relatively moderate to high potential,” said Dave Norman, state geologist with DNR.

The DNR sampling highlighted hot spots at Mount Baker and the Wind River area as the best places for further geothermal exploration in Washington. (You can look at their mapped well data here.)  There are currently no geothermal electricity generating plants in operation in the state.

In Oregon, geothermal energy provides heat for the city of Klamath Falls but geothermal electrification plants are still few and far between, despite a more extensive geothermal resource than that of Washington. There are two plants in operation – a small one in Klamath Falls at the Oregon Institute of Technology and another 30.1MW facility in Malheur County, which borders Idaho and Nevada.

Seattle-based company, AltaRock is piloting new hydroshearing geothermal technology at the Newberry Crater in Central Oregon, where the Forest Service has already issued a 53,000 acre lease in the Deschutes National Forest.


A scene at Mount Baker Hot Springs, where litter and personal belongings can be found scattered on the ground.
A scene at Mount Baker Hot Springs, where litter and personal belongings can be found scattered on the ground. Ashley Ahearn


Retreating to nature vs. harnessing nature

Orange peels, beer bottles and discarded bras and bathing suits litter the Mount Baker Hot Springs when Dave Tucker, co-director of the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, and Western Washington University’s Stelling arrive. This area is a hot spot for local college students as well as geothermal energy researchers.

“104.1, 104.3,” Tucker reads temperatures (in degrees Fahrenheit) off his sensor. A broken bottle crunches under his boot. “It’s not, certainly you wouldn’t generate any power from this thing but it’s an indicator that hot water can reach the surface here.”

The springs are within the area of national forest currently under consideration for potential geothermal leasing, though the Forest Service says that any development near the springs would undergo a comprehensive review and the springs would not be disturbed.

The faint rotten egg smell and warm surface temperatures in this pool are enough to interest energy companies and utilities in exploring this area further.

A few hundred yards up the hill from where the geologists scrutinize mineral deposits and algae growth around the murky pool, a tent peeps out of the trees. Four college students groggily make breakfast on their camp stove.

“Does anyone want bacon?” asks Nathan Sundyne, a student at Western Washington University.

Samantha Miller sits in a camp chair nearby.


Samantha Miller and Paul Bikis, students at Western Washington University, enjoy the Mt. Baker hot springs. “I think it’s cool the idea of harnessing natural energy," Miller said, "but if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.”
Samantha Miller and Paul Bikis, students at Western Washington University, enjoy the Mt. Baker hot springs. I think it’s cool the idea of harnessing natural energy,” Miller said, “but if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.” Ashley Ahearn


“I think it’s cool, the idea of harnessing natural energy like that,” she says.  “But if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.”

“Do we destroy the habitat we have, that we get to sit around and enjoy, for energy for more houses and development – growth for the sake of growth?” Paul Bikis, a fellow student asks. “Or do we want to preserve the places that we cherish?”

As Tucker and Stelling hike out of the hot springs area, Stelling pauses to pick up a discarded beer bottle.

“People say ‘no [geothermal development] –  it’s so pretty here,’ and then they leave this mess around,” Stelling said, frustration in his voice. He acknowledges that harnessing geothermal power does come with some local environmental impacts, but he says that we can no longer afford to be “hamstrung” by the “not in my backyard” approach to new clean energy projects.

“If we want to save the environment and be the environmentalists that we hope that we are, then we need to consider what we’re doing on a bigger scale.”

Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

Nikki Burch
Nikki Burch


By Brentin Mock and Jacqueline Patterson, Grist


As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

Consider that only 51 percent of American voters “strongly” prefer clean energy investments, according to a recent Sierra Club survey, but preference is significantly higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent). A Yale study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent — a modest sum — of energy load from wind or solar, even if that would increase electric bills.

And yet it’s white men who exercise most of the power over the current coal-based economy – via their places on corporate boards, their positions in politics, and, on the local and state level, where they make up the bulk of public utility and service commissioners. The utility commissioners (who are usually elected or appointed) regulate the corporate-owned utility industries, determine electricity costs and, in some cases, decide where power plants can be built.

These utility commissioners will play a critical role in hammering out the details of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced regulations for coal-fired power plants. Yet, many of them do not look like the residents that the utilities serve. According to a study from the Minority and Media Telecom Council, 33 state public utility commissions (64.7 percent) do not have a single minority member — that includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the states with the highest concentration of black residents.

We also see this whiteout at the federal level, where the number of people of color serving in the U.S. House and Senate energy committees are but a handful.

You can chalk this lack of diversity up to the kind of patronage and cronyism that has preserved these powerful roles for white men —  a function of white supremacy. You can also credit voter suppression and intimidation, which happen even in local utility district elections. In fact, such shenanigans are harder to detect in these smaller races that don’t draw the same kind of media spotlight as a gubernatorial or presidential race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans built multiracial coalitions to diversify local utility boards and electricity co-ops throughout the South, white officials secretly changed election rules to disqualify their votes (read more on this here).

Other examples:

● In 2000, the Department of Justice filed a voting rights complaint against the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, Calif., for redrawing district lines so that the Latino voting populations would be diluted across the district.

● In 2008, Texas proposed to change its qualification requirements for candidates running for water supply district supervisor so that only landowners would be eligible, which ruled out a number of Latino Americans seeking candidacy and some who were already supervisors.

● Also in 2008, the North Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder case, which the U.S. Supreme Court almost used to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, involved elections for positions that control utility, land, and water resources.

These cases show how racial disenfranchisement drains power, energy, and resources from people of color, which is why Voting Rights Act protections are so essential.

People are taking action despite these problems. Latino Americans are campaigning to defeat a proposal from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which wants to build more coal and nuclear energy stations. In Arizona, Latinos are campaigning to encourage the Salt River Project public utility board to increase solar and wind energy generation. In South Carolina, Rev. Leo Woodberry is leading an environmental justice effort to work on the state’s implementation plans for the new power plant regulations, with an emphasis on making sure electricity rates remain affordable and accessible for low-income customers.

Understand, it’s not only that we need more black and brown utility commissioners. But voters need to ensure that commissioners of any race represent their clean energy values. Last year in Georgia, a multi-racial band of clean energy advocates teamed with the not-so-colorful Tea Party to force Georgia Power Company to increase solar-based energy production. The coalition did this by appealing to the Georgia Public Service Commission. There has been only one African American and one woman who’ve served on Georgia’s Public Service Commission in its 133 years, both of them elected in the 21st century.

These are laudable campaigns, but ultimately it will require African-American, Native-American, and Latino American voters being able to vote fairly and freely — and also to be able to serve on these boards — to ensure that those paying the highest costs for our fossil fuel addiction have a voice in securing a clean energy future. For all Americans who want the same for their future, the way to act is to support strengthening voting rights protections across the nation.

Brentin Mock is Grist’s justice editor. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.

Feds OK Eagle Deaths From Wind Turbines; Osage Object

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

They are akin to 30-story spinning skyscrapers, their rotors the width of a jet plane’s wingspan and the blade tips moving at up to 170 miles per hour, creating tornado-like vortexes.

Bald and golden eagles, as well as millions of other birds, are sucked in and chopped up annually by wind farms’ whirling turbines, as the Associated Press described it. Wind farms are killing birds, and the government of President Barack Obama has just decreed it to be collateral damage in the quest for clean energy.

With climate change and renewable energy foremost on many peoples’ minds, Obama has said that wind energy companies will be allowed to kill (accidentally) a certain number of eagles and other birds under 30-year permits. In return the companies must take measures to prevent such deaths and will be required to track and report the number of birds that are killed in their turbines, the AP reported on December 6.

Permits will last 30 years and be reviewed every five years, the U.S. Department of the Interior said in its statement announcing the rules change. It builds on a permitting program begun in 2009 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the department said.

While the measure’s stated purpose is to acknowledge that some bird deaths are inevitable, environmental stewards hold that such allowances give companies too much leeway. The Osage Tribe is already battling an application for just such a permit by Wind Capital Group. The company is seeking to build a 94-turbine wind farm and estimates it would kill up to 120 eagles annually during the life of the project.

RELATED: Osage Nation Objects to Wind-Turbine Company’s Potentially Precedent-Setting Request to Kill Bald Eagles

The Osage reacted strongly to Obama’s rule change announcement and said the President should know better.

“President Obama knows how important eagle feathers are to us: He was adopted into the Crow Nation and was adorned with a full war bonnet containing eagle feathers from head to toe,” said Assistant Principal Chief Scott N. Bighorse, according to the AP.

The Audubon Society said it would challenge the new ruling, which was handed down the by U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the Audubon Society, in a statement. “It’s outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the bald eagle.”

The nation’s highest priority should on finding “reasonable, thoughtful partners to wean America off fossil fuels,” Yarnold said. “We have no choice but to challenge this decision, and all options are on the table.”

Duke Energy Corp. pleaded guilty last month and was fined copy million last month for killing eagles with its wind turbines.

RELATED: Eagle-Killing Wind Turbine Company Fined copy Million

Meanwhile, as of December 11, 15 companies had applied for permits, not just wind power enterprises but also building companies and the military, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokesperson Chris Tollefson to the Journal Record. The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the middle of a 60-day public-comment period that ends on February 3 on environmental considerations for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind projects in Wyoming. Two public hearings are scheduled, the first one on December 16 in Rawlins, Wyoming and the second on December 17 in Saratoga, Wyoming, according to Greenwire. The project itself was approved last year, Greenwire reported. The facility “proposes to string together as many as 1,000 turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands,” Greenwire said. The environmental review is to determine such a project’s effect on golden eagles.

Below, the Osage Nation explains the effect of wind turbines on migrating eagles.



Triple threat: Obama orders federal agencies to boost clean energy use threefold

Lisa Hymas, Grist

Two bills in the Senate would require the country to get at least 25 percent renewable electricity by 2025, but neither has a chance in hell of making it to Obama’s desk. Thanks, Republicans! So the president is doing what he can without approval from Congress: requiring the federal government to get more of its power from renewable sources.

From NPR:

President Obama says the U.S. government “must lead by example” when it comes to safeguarding the environment, so he’s ordering federal agencies to use more clean energy.

Under a presidential memorandum out Thursday, each agency would have until 2020 to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable supplies. …

Agencies are supposed to build their own facilities when they can, or buy clean energy from wind farms and solar facilities. …

The memo also directs federal agencies to increase energy efficiency in its buildings and its power management systems.

The U.S. government currently gets about 7.5 percent of its electricity from renewables, so the new goal would almost triple that percentage.

With today’s memorandum, Obama follows through on a promise he made in his big climate speech in June. We’re looking forward to him keeping the rest of the promises from that speech.

Ethanol: Clean Energy Or The Source Of New Environmental Concerns?

The agricultural industry has reaped the rewards of laws requiring ethanol cultivation, but now the environmental ramifications are causing second thoughts.

The impacts of ethanol on the nation’s wetlands and conservation sites are becoming more apparent, as farmers take over once-protected land to cultivate corn for the ever-growing ethanol industry — one initially intended to help the environment.

A report released by the Associated Press paints an entirely different picture.

Ethanol, which is derived from corn, is added in the nation’s gas supply in order to create a blend that offers renewable energy sources and a lighter impact on pollutant emissions. Yet the Associated Press report indicates that the cultivation of farmland needed to meet the nation’s ethanol requirements is contributing more to carbon emissions than previously thought — all the while affecting the environment through the use of fertilizers and wetland destruction.

According to the report, more than 5 million acres of land that had been designated for conservation purposes have been restructured for the production of ethanol. Throughout that process, natural habitats have been destroyed and fertilizers have been released, creating a new environmental issue of its own.

The 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, signed into law by George W. Bush, required 18.15 billion gallons of ethanol production per year — it also required refineries purchase and blend ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supplies.

While Bush signed the standard into law, the Obama administration carried on with the pledge. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is calling for a reduction to the standard’s production mandate — down to 13 billion gallons a year.

That’s at least a step in the right direction for those who are concerned about the impact the industry is having on area waterways, wetlands and conservation sites. Iowa, which is a hotbed for the ethanol industry, has seen the adverse effects on water systems, particularly related to nitrate contamination.

Utility Company Des Moines Water Works told the Associated Press that nitrate levels in area rivers have steadily increased, particularly in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, which serve as the source of drinking water for nearly 500,000 Iowans.

“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” General Manager Bill Stowe told the Associated Press.

Yet for the agricultural industry, which has benefitted from the creation of the new business, the EPA guidelines would be bad news. Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen maintains that the ethanol industry is a boost to both farmers and the environment, claiming that ethanol is still a cleaner source of energy.

In response to the Associated Press story regarding the negative impacts of the industry on Iowa wetlands and conservation sites, Dineen’s organization released a statement, claiming the story was yet another attack on the industry.

Interior Approves Large-Scale Wind Energy Project on Arizona Public Lands

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

On June 28, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the approval of a major wind energy project in Arizona that, when built, will provide up to 500 megawatts to the electricity grid—enough energy to power up to 175,000 houses—and create approximately 750 jobs through construction and operations.

The project advances President Obama’s comprehensive plan to reduce carbon pollution and move the country’s economy toward domestic-made clean energy sources, thus hopefully slowing the effects of climate change.

As part of his comprehensive climate action plan, Obama challenged the U.S. Department of the Interior to approve an additional 10,000 above the original goal of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy production on public lands by 2020.

The project, proposed by BP Wind Energy North America, Inc., would erect up to 243 wind turbines on federal lands for the Mohave County Wind Farm, which would be located in northwestern Arizona about 40 miles northwest of Kingman.

“These are exactly the kind of responsible steps that we need to take to expand homegrown, clean energy on our public lands and cut carbon pollution that affects public health,” said Secretary Jewell. “This wind energy project shows that reducing our carbon pollution can also generate jobs and cut our reliance on foreign oil.”

With this recent announcement, Interior has approved 46 wind, solar and geothermal utility-scale projects on public lands since 2009, including associated transmission corridors and infrastructure to connect to established power grids. When built, these projects could provide enough electricity to power more than 4.4 million homes and support over 17,000 construction and operations jobs.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has identified an additional 14 active renewable energy proposals slated for review this year and next. The Bureau recognized these projects through a process that emphasizes early consultation and collaboration with its sister agencies at Interior—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service—demonstrating President Obama’s and Interior’s ongoing commitment to “smart from the start” planning.

The decision to approve the Mohave County Wind Farm paves the way for right-of-way grants for use of approximately 35,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and 2,800 acres of Bureau of Reclamation land.

The company agreed to undertake significant mitigation efforts to minimize impacts to wildlife and other resources, including reducing the project’s footprint by about 20 percent from the original proposal. The smaller footprint will protect golden eagle habitat and reduce visual and noise impacts to the Lake Mead National Recreational Area. In particular, the Interior’s decision bars the installation of turbines within designated sensitive areas to avoid golden eagle nesting locations, as well as provides for a 1.2-mile buffer zone to protect the nests.

Additionally, no turbine will be closer than a quarter-mile to private property. “The project reflects exemplary cooperation between our Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation and other federal, state and local agencies, enabling a thorough environmental review and robust mitigation provisions,” said Bureau of Land Management Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze. “This decision represents a responsible balance between the need for renewable energy and our mandate to protect the public’s natural resources.”

“I added my signature of approval for this vital project on the same week that President Obama challenged Interior to intensify its development of clean, renewable energy,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Connor said. “Reclamation’s hydropower resources are a centerpiece of the nation’s renewable energy strategy. We are pleased to also play a significant role in this important wind energy project.”



Navajo Generating Station gains support from government agencies

Interior, Energy, EPA Commit to Cooperative Working Group to Achieve Shared Goals on Navajo Generating Station in Arizona

Release Date: 01/04/2013, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,

WASHINGTON – Today the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency released a joint statement that lays out the agencies’ shared goals for Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and energy production in the region served by NGS.

In the statement, the three agencies agree they will work together to support Arizona and tribal stakeholders in finding ways to produce “clean, affordable and reliable power, affordable and sustainable water supplies, and sustainable economic development, while minimizing negative impacts on those who currently obtain significant benefits from NGS, including tribal nations.”

In addition to identifying shared goals, the statement announces specific activities the agencies intend to take jointly to help achieve those goals. These actions include: 1) creating a long-term DOI-EPA-DOE NGS working group; 2) working with stakeholders to develop an NGS roadmap; 3) committing to complete the second phase of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report on clean, affordable, and sustainable energy options for NGS; and 4) supporting near-term investments that align with long-term clean energy goals.

A copy of the Joint Statement is available at

NGS is a coal-fired power plant located on the Navajo Indian reservation approximately 15 miles from the Grand Canyon and owned partially by the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation). Power from the facility is distributed to customers in Arizona, California, and Nevada. Reclamation’s share of the power is used to move water to tribal, agricultural, and municipal water users in central Arizona.

The Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency oversee other federal responsibilities or interests that relate to NGS. These include tribal trust responsibilities, protection of national parks and wilderness areas, visibility and public health protection, and clean energy development.