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SANTA FE, N.M. — Despite nothing in the Santa Fe National Forest’s current forest plan that allows it, widespread opposition against it, and no input from the firm that triggered the entire process, U.S. Forest Service officials are following through with a years-long undertaking of evaluating whether 136,650 acres of forest land surrounding the Valles Caldera National Preserve is suitable for geothermal energy exploration and development.
Two community meetings meant to get the word out about a “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” and the deadline for public comment were held this week in Jemez Springs and El Rito. One other meeting was held in Santa Fe earlier this month.
Just prior to the deadline for this story, the National Forest announced that another meeting would be added in Albuquerque and that the comment period, originally set to end Aug. 22, would be extended to an as-yet-undetermined date.
“In general, the feeling is that everybody is opposed to it here. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea somewhere else,” Larry Gore, a Santa Fe National Forest geologist leading the process, said in summarizing the input he has gotten so far.
“The process we’re in right now is asking the public – as individuals and groups – to look at the draft EIS and see if we have adequately addressed their concerns. If they don’t feel comfortable with what’s in there, they need to submit a written comment.”
The critics don’t think it’s a good idea at all and especially not in one of the most alluring parts of New Mexico for recreationalists, with a dormant volcano nearby, in a zone already considered at risk for earthquakes and with the presence of a nuclear weapons facility less than 20 miles away.
Those were some of the concerns submitted during the scoping period for the environmental assessment last year. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen, if you begin to mess with the earth’s surface,” warned one person who identified themselves as “a retired citizen of Jemez Springs and a lover of the exceptional beauty and pristine wilderness that surrounds us.”
The All Pueblo Council of Governors – with a special interest in preserving cultural and religious properties in the area – a consortium of environmental and wildlife preservation groups, and dozens of citizens have expressed opposition to geothermal energy development.
Gore acknowledged that, through the 2015 scoping period – during which more than 200 individuals or groups provided more than 900 comments – and the draft EIS evaluation process so far, no one has come forward to express support.
But because an out-of-state firm nominated the lands in the area for competitive geothermal leasing five years ago, the evaluation process continues.
“That’s what’s driving the process,” Gore said of the expression of interest Ormat Technologies filed in March 2011 with the Bureau of Land Management, the agency with the authority over subsurface minerals.
Ormat Technologies, based in Reno, Nev., has not submitted any information in support of geothermal drilling throughout the process, Gore said.
“During scoping, we did check in with them to make sure they were interested in proceeding. It would seem pointless to go ahead otherwise,” said Gore. “At that point, they still thought the claims would be viable.”
Ormat officials did not respond to multiple phone and email messages from the Journal this w eek.
According to the company’s website, Ormat is the “only vertically integrated geothermal company” with expertise in “all aspects of the geothermal project development process,” including seeking and obtaining land to funding, lease purchasing, permitting, exploration, drilling, and the development and operation of geothermal power plants.
It describes itself as “a pioneer in the geothermal renewable energy systems” that supplies geothermal power to 23 countries. It reported revenue of $151.6 million during the first quarter of 2016.
In 2008, Ormat’s president told The Associated Press that the geothermal industry should do more to promote itself.
“I don’t know if we have failed, but we certainly have not succeeded until now to capture the imagination of other people on the public relations level,” said Yoram Bronicki, who resigned as president and CEO of the company in November. “Everybody else looks at the wind turbine as the staple of renewable energy.”
The Geothermal Research Council, an industry group, touts the benefits of geothermal energy as an economic driver, and a clean and sustainable energy resource.
Specific to New Mexico, the council’s website says that developing the state’s available geothermal resources can create thousands of jobs – 5,200 construction jobs and 1,840 full-time positions in operations. Developing geothermal resources for direct use could also reduce carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons per year, according to the group.
Geothermal resource sites within the state are already in use in Catron, Doña Ana, Otero and Sierra counties.
SFNF said about $709,000 has been spent on the evaluation so far, with about $180,000 more needed to complete the process. More than half the funding was provided through the Engery Policy Act, while $425,000 is from the SFNF budget.
As explained in the impact statement, geothermal resources are reservoirs of hot water, steam or dry hot rock below the earth’s surface. It sometimes comes to the surface naturally in the form of steam vents, geysers or hot springs. Jemez Springs is named and known for its hot springs.
Geothermal energy is captured by tapping the reservoirs or hot rock by drilling wells and extracting energy as fluid or steam, which can then be converted to electricity.
But critics say geothermal energy isn’t all that clean and can lead to other problems. Extracting energy from hot rock usually involves injecting water at high pressure from the surface, a controversial technique commonly known as fracking. Studies have shown increased seismic activity in areas where fracking occurs.
The draft EIS notes that the area under study lies above several faults, and that 54 earthquakes have occurred within the vicinity of the Santa Fe National Forest between 1964 and 2014, the largest with a magnitude of 3.5. The nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory has been required in recent years to shore up its defenses in a case of a seismic event.
“The probability of an earthquake exceeding magnitude 5.0 in the project area in the next 20 years ranges from 3 to 15 percent,” according to the document, which notes that a 5.0 earthquake would do little or no damage to “well-constructed structures.”
Dirty, wet steam
George Diesel is an opponent of developing geothermal energy in the area with a unique perspective. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he worked as a field engineer for a private company that, in association with the Department of Energy and PNM, explored geothermal resources on what was then the Baca Land and Cattle Company, later sold to the U.S. government and converted into the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
“It was a doomed project; it wasn’t going to work,” Diesel, who now lives in Albuquerque, said in a phone interview.
In the simplest of terms, Diesel said the extracted steam was not of the type that would make mining geothermal energy financially viable.
“In some places in the U.S., the steam is clean. In the Jemez, it’s not clean. It’s dirty and wet,” he said.
And the liquids pumped to the surface contained solids that would clog the pipes in a short amount of time, he said.
“I’ve seen a 24-inch pipe get closed off in less than a week. It builds up and becomes extremely expensive. There is no way to scrub it clean,” he said.
Diesel had numerous other concerns, including threats to water quality, depletion of water reserves and the environmental disruption geothermal exploration would cause, including the construction of new roads to access areas and bring in equipment.
“They drill with a huge oil drilling rig. It takes hundreds of truckloads to stockpile material and transport it just to do one well. It’s a big stress on the environment,” he said.
A paper published in 2002 by Fraser Goff, a Los Alamos lab scientist who provided comment during the scoping period, supports Diesel’s assessment.
“This project, which was supposed to showcase development of liquid-dominated geothermal reservoirs, became extremely frustrating, expensive, and non-productive,” he wrote of the same project Diesel worked on.
Goff concluded that it was highly likely that costs to produce geothermal energy in the Valles Caldera would be considerably higher than elsewhere. He wrote that generating geothermal power in the area “only makes sense if the cost is subsidized.”
Gore said the National Forest is basing its criteria for viability on a U.S. Geological Survey study that identified 195,000 acres in the Coyote, Cuba, Española and Jemez ranger districts as being potentially suitable for geothermal development. Almost one-third of that area is owned privately or by the state or pueblos, leaving a little more than 135,000 acres for potential development.
Gore said great strides have been made in the geothermal technology since Goff’s paper was written and the studies cited therein were done.
And it’s not up to the U.S. Forest Service to decide determine the feasibility.
“All we’re doing is saying either, ‘Yes, this land is available for geothermal leasing, or ‘no, it’s not available,’ ” he said. “It’s up to the company to do their own study to determine the feasibility, knowing what restrictions we are putting on development.”
One person’s decision
Diesel and others have also been critical of the evaluation process. He attended the community meeting in Jemez Springs on Tuesday and said he left feeling frustrated. The presentation was fraught with what he considered assumptions and misconceptions about geothermal development “almost to the point of ridiculousness,” he said.
He also complained that the process culminates with a decision by just one person, Forest Supervisor Maria Garcia, whose decision is expected to come some time in 2017. “One person shouldn’t have that kind of power,” he said.
The forest supervisor can decide to take no action, which would still allow for applications to be considered on a case-by-case basis: Accept proposed action, which would identify some areas as open to leasing with constraints, or close to leasing, which would exclude development.
Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, has also complained about the process, last week sending a letter to Gore complaining about SFNF’s outreach efforts during the evaluation period. She was one of only five people who attended the meeting in Santa Fe, although more people were at the other two public hearings.
“It appears (whether this was SFNF’s intention or not) that SFNF was attempting to advertise a public meeting in the way which garnered the least amount of public participation as possible,” she wrote.
The email announcing the July 7 meeting was sent out the Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July weekend, a letter her group received announcing the meeting was postmarked the day before the meeting and the announcement did not have a prominent presence on the SFNF’s website, she said. “They have not handled this great,” Calman said of SFNF during a phone interview this week. “We complained about these things last year and they just do it again.”
In response, National Forest said Thursday that it would add a public meeting in Albuquerque in August. A date and location have not been determined. The public comment period is also being extended, most likely to a date in September.