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Thursday, June 19, 2008 - Page updated at 06:50 PM

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Geothermal meetings set in energy-hungry West

Geothermal energy prospectors' plans to develop vast swaths of federal land in the West are due for a boost, part of Congress' effort to help feed the region's rapacious appetite for energy.

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho —

Geothermal energy prospectors' plans to develop vast swaths of federal land in the West are due for a boost, part of Congress' effort to help feed the region's rapacious appetite for energy.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service plan 13 meetings next month in 11 Western states and Alaska to gather public comment on a newly released environmental impact statement that, when completed, will open millions of acres to companies aiming to tap naturally superheated subterranean steam and water to power turbines or warm buildings.

In 2005, federal lawmakers approved provisions in the nation's new energy policy directing the BLM and Forest Service to streamline geothermal development on land they oversee to help sate U.S. energy demand that is expected to grow by 1.9 percent a year until 2025.

With energy prices soaring, geothermal interest is high: A competitive auction of lease parcels on federal public lands in Nevada and California last August brought in bids of nearly $20 million.

"The indications of these lease sales we've had in the last eight to 10 months, they've been well attended," Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Thursday. "The amount of money bid for these leases indicates there is great interest on the part of industry and stakeholder groups in geothermal energy."

The public hearings are set for July 8 in Anchorage; July 9 in Fairbanks; July 14 in Reno, Nev.; July 15 in Salt Lake City; July 16 in Tucson, Ariz.; July 17 in Cheyenne, Wyo.; July 21 in Boise; July 22 in Albuquerque, N.M.; July 23 in Helena, Mont.; July 24 in Denver; July 28 in Seattle; July 29 in Portland, Ore.; and July 30 in Sacramento, Calif.

A final document could take more than a year.

Until 2007, leases for geothermal development were noncompetitive; a congressionally mandated switch to competitive auctions is a recognition the industry has matured and future leases will be driven by demand. Across the West, some 60 new geothermal projects are in the works, in addition to more than 60 existing sites in five states.

In addition to the competitive California and Nevada leases that brought top dollar last August, the BLM is preparing for additional geothermal lease auctions in Oregon, California and Nevada in July, while Utah and Idaho are accepting lease nominations for a possible auction after Oct. 1.

When finalized, the BLM's and Forest Service's environmental impact statement will determine whether more than 30 lease applications filed prior to Jan. 1, 2005, are in areas that are appropriate for geothermal development.

More importantly, the document will amend BLM resource management plans to either close or open lands with geothermal potential to future competitive leasing and will provide information to the Forest Service to help that agency make decisions on geothermal leasing in its territory.

"It's relatively important from the exploration standpoint," said Doug Glaspey, chief operating officer for U.S. Geothermal Inc., a Canadian-based company with a 13-megawatt geothermal power plant near Malta on the Idaho-Utah border. "It will allow us to move exploration projects ahead faster."

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Areas that will remain closed include federally protected wilderness and 14,000 acres of national forest in Idaho west of Yellowstone National Park, to keep thirsty power plants from sucking the park's world-famous geysers dry.

In the agencies' preferred option, 117 million acres of BLM-administered public land and 75 million acres of Forest Service territory would be legally opened to geothermal leasing.

A more-limited alternative calls for approximately 61 million acres of BLM land and 31 million acres of Forest Service territory to be opened for geothermal leasing. About 155 million acres would be closed to leases.

The second option was developed after environmental groups raised concerns last year that the preferred alternative was too broad.

"As with anything that's going to happen on public lands, it's important to consider all the resource impacts for any projects, whether it be geothermal or wind," said Brad Brooks, with The Wilderness Society in Boise. "There are areas where we would be supportive of geothermal development. But there are other areas that should be off-limits, and that includes wilderness study areas and areas that are important for sage grouse."

The more expansive option is favored by the agencies because it gives them more flexibility, Feeney said.

"We'll wait to see if there's something in between those two alternatives," she said.

And while the final environmental impact statement would remove initial hurdles for identifying areas suitable for geothermal projects, she said a lease alone doesn't authorize any drilling.

Additional federal environmental reviews and permits could still be required.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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