The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) last week announced plans to allow geothermal drilling in more than 190 million acres of federal land, spanning 12 Western states. Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the interior, said that the proposed initiative could increase geothermal power production in the U.S. tenfold.

“Geothermal energy will play a key role in powering America’s energy future, and 90 percent of our nation’s geothermal resources are found on Federal lands,” Kempthorne said. “Facilitating their leasing and development under environmentally sound regulations is crucial to supplying the secure, clean energy American homes and businesses need.”

Under the development scenario outlined in the plan—known as the Final Geothermal Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS)—the initiative could produce 5,540 MW of new generation capacity from geothermal resources by 2015. The plan also estimates an additional 6,600 MW by 2025.

When put into action by a Record of Decision (a formal decision document), the plan would identify about 118 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed public lands and 79 million acres of National Forest System lands for future geothermal leasing.

It would also provide a list of appropriate stipulations to be applied to leases and amend 122 BLM land-use plans to allow for geothermal development.

The U.S. leads the world in geothermal power, with about 16,000 GWh generated in 2005. Almost half of this production and 90% of U.S. geothermal resources occur on federal lands.

Geothermal leasing revenues and royalties are shared with the states and counties where the leases are located. About 50% of these revenues go to the state, 25% to the county, and the remaining 25% to the Geothermal Royalty Fund of the BLM for investing in further geothermal planning and development.

Under the DOI’s plan, future geothermal leasing will be subject to all existing laws, regulations, and orders, as well as stipulations and terms and conditions. To protect special resource values, the plan identifies a comprehensive list of stipulations, conditions of approval, and best management practices required for approval of future leases.

Lands withdrawn from or administratively closed to geothermal leasing will remain excluded from the plan. For example, lands within a unit of the National Park System, such as Yellowstone National Park, will continue to be unavailable for leasing.

The PEIS also excludes wilderness areas and wilderness study areas from analysis. It will allow discretionary closure of “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” where the BLM determines that this is appropriate. The BLM may also implement discretionary closures of units of the National Landscape Conservation System.

The Forest Service will use information in the plan to facilitate leasing analysis to determine whether or not geothermal leasing is appropriate and to evaluate its land use plans and amend them as needed through a separate environmental review process.

In addition to laying the foundation for environmental analysis of future geothermal leasing, the plan also provides site-specific environmental analysis of 19 pending geothermal lease applications in seven geographic locations. These leases were filed before Jan. 1, 2005 for specific lands in Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington managed by the Forest Service or the BLM. Decisions on the issuance of these 19 leases could proceed as soon as the Record of Decision is signed.

The governors of the 12 states in the plan’s project area will each have the opportunity to review the final document to ensure consistency with state plans, programs, and policies. The BLM will wait until the end of the governors’ consistency review period before signing and issuing the Record of Decision approving the land use plan amendments. Any inconsistencies will be resolved before a Record of Decision is issued.

The DOI said that recent BLM geothermal lease sales in areas where current Resource Management Plans already allocate lands for use indicate a growing interest in developing geothermal resources. An August 2007 sale, for example, drew the highest-ever per-acre bid for a lease in California’s famed Geysers field. Likewise, a sale of leases in Nevada brought in a record-breaking $28.2 million in August 2008.

A total of 29 geothermal power plants currently operate on BLM lands in California, Nevada, and Utah, with a total generating capacity of 1,250 MW.

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior