An Issue of Place: Geothermal Heats the Caldera
by Asante Riverwind, December 2007
Spring sunlight glints myriad stars across turquoise-jade waters. With soft sounds of lapping waves, my kayak veers towards bubbling hot springs corralled with logs at shores edge. An osprey calls, flying a fish on its last earthly journey towards nest-bound young. South, jagged spires of Paulina Peak watch over two lakes below separated by forests and obsidian swirled lava flows. Without intervention the fate of this area is possibly as imperiled as that of the fish flying in ospreys talons.
Newberry National Monument is a world renowned volcanic geologic treasure. The 500 square mile Newberry Caldera is one of the largest shield volcanoes in North America. Similar to Crate Lake, recreationally popular Paulina and East Lakes are located within caldera. Nearby forests cradle an 80 foot waterfall as wild and scenic Paulina Creek drops into a canyon. The deep lakes and beautiful forests provide habitat for nesting bald eagles, osprey, black bears, pine marten, ducks, geese and tundra swans.
Newberry Caldera, like much of the Cascades, is still geologically young. Hot springs along Paulina Lakes shores are heated from slumbering volcanic depths far below. Heat rising from deep magma baked rocks has brought geothermal speculators; power companies and investors holding leases on public lands. Without required public hearings and environmental analysis, geothermal leases were issued over two decades ago on Forest Service lands.
Conservation and community desires to protect the natural beauty of Newberry Caldera and its two popular lakes, led to the creation of the Newberry National Monument in 1994. The Monument was a cooperative effort involving diverse community members, including conservationists, public officials, area residents, and geothermal leaseholders. While the creation of the Monument protects much of the Newberry caldera from geothermal development, it does not prohibit exploration or production outside of Monuments boundaries. Negotiations with lease holding companies during the Monuments creation expressly retained the potential for geothermal energy development along the caldera outside Newberry boundaries. However, the Newberry Volcanic National Monument Act does not mandate geothermal resources be developed.
Instead, other federal laws govern, requiring BLM and the USFS assess ecological impacts and appropriateness of geothermal production in this area. Since mid-1980 when many geothermal leases were issued, awareness of geothermal energys adverse impacts has grown.
Originally touted as a renewable green energy source, growing experience and scientific research is now divided on whether geothermal energy is truly either. Electrical geothermal production requires large scale pumping of fluids from deep in the earth. Heated amidst volcanic rocks containing diverse arrays of toxic mineral compounds, fluids known as geothermal brines and steams commonly contain a toxic soup of dangerous chemicals, substances, and gases. During production processes, most of the fluids are contained in pipes and reinjected deep into the earth. However, during exploration, testing, construction, maintenance, and expansions toxins are routinely vented unabated into the atmosphere, with often devastating results including environmental pollution, harm to wildlife, waterways and fish, forests and native vegetation, loss of agricultural crops, and harms to workers and communities health. Long-term production evidences depletion of geothermal fluids, lowered aquifers, increased salinity, and a tapering off of production capacities. Scientists have concluded production plants also have caused increased seismic activity, resulting in low Richter scale swarms of quakes. But most research has been funded or conducted by companies with vested financial interests in results. Objective, independent research is needed to truly assess geothermal production impacts and longevity. (See WJJ Spring 2007.)
In October 2007, BLM approved new exploration on the west side of Newberry. This was done without public hearings or adequate analysis. What passed as analysis was largely biased inaccurate information from industry. Among false claims made by BLM in the analysis is that eventual electrical production would help meet Oregons renewable energy goals and needs. Instead, current plans call for selling all electrical energy produced for California consumption. Interestingly, while citing future energy production as a reason to approve exploration, BLM simultaneously claims it doesnt need to evaluate production impacts as the agency considers these separate. Instead BLM myopically addressed only limited exploration issues.
This cart before the horse approach appears headed to the loss of Newberrys irreplaceable treasured qualities, from serene old growth forests and jeweled lakes to unspoiled high caldera ridge views and trails. An industrial-scale production plant would bring noise, toxic emissions and steam plumes, heavy truck traffic, and high voltage power lines within sight and hearing of the Monument. Full scale production could degrade Newberrys recreational and natural qualities, harm wildlife, and increase the likelihood of small quakes.
The recent exploration approval is not the first for this area. Over the past decades there have been several geothermal wells drilled, with limited results and continued speculation. The most recent was approved by the USFS and BLM in 1994. Cal Energy drilled wells at five sites after clearcutting and leveling these five acre sites. Results were inconclusive, with sites now long dormant. Promised reclamation was never done, with the sites put into suspension instead. During the decade-plus since, holding ponds for geothermal brines have been left open to wild birds and mammals, as well as unsuspecting humans and pets that may wander into these clearcuts along the Monuments western edge. Now, after failing to responsibly reclaim these sites, BLM and the USFS have approved three additional five acre clear cuts, including ponds for toxins, with up to nine exploration wells, continuing the industrial degradation of the areas forests.
The Klamath Tribes, whose treaty-right ancestral lands include Newberry, are adamantly opposed to the exploration. They appealed BLMs decision stating their opinion was not taken into account where it came to our spiritual beliefs Our people cannot allow another project to destroy one of our sacred and holy areas to gather obsidian known as a Mbosaksawaas (Flint Place). The Cultural and Heritage Committee has opposed this project after a field trip revealed areas have been left destroyed for nine years with no attempt to rectify the situation. It would be negligent to allow another project to proceed based on an uncertainty as to whether or not a geothermal resource exists at the expense of our native practitioners and the general public that share our connection to the earth.
Many Sierra Club member share a deep love and concern for earths natural lands with the Klamath Tribes. Geothermal energy's claims to be green and renewable remain scientifically controversial as more evidence accumulates of its harms. Neither the conservation nor scientific communities have united on this still undecided issue.
Yet, federal laws are clear; before steps are taken that forever change the natural character of an area as treasured as Newberry, affected communities must be informed and meaningfully consulted. An environmental analysis of the full impacts of geothermal exploration and related production must be assessed and fully disclosed.
Summer surveys among Newberry Resort workers, residents, and visitors revealed no one knew about the current exploration. Instead, this decision is an ethically and legally unacceptable end-run circumventing public involvement and requisite analysis. The Oregon Chapter Sierra Club has voted to oppose the implementation of the Newberry Project, at least until unanswered questions and missing analysis have been addressed. Before geothermal exploration can begin at Newberry, we as a community must first decide if this treasured location is compatible with the known risks and harms inherent in geothermal energy production. If not, as many in the area believe, Newberry Caldera should be withdrawn from geothermal speculation, leases rescinded, and companies sent where production has less risk of harm.