Between a Rock and a Hot Place

Photograph courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

It’s full steam ahead for geothermal energy. Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced today that the government will open 190 million acres of public land for geothermal energy development in 12 states. If all goes well, energy from new sources of underground heat could power 5.5 million homes by 2015. The renewable energy tax credits Congress passed this month are expected to support geothermal energy use.


Opening public land for energy development has been a huge part of the Bush administration’s energy policy. To the disappointment of many environmentalists, the focus seemed to be on drilling those lands for non-renewable energy sources like oil and gas.

The Wilderness Society conducted an analysis earlier this year based on Department of the Interior information and found that the government leased more than 44 million acres of public land for oil and gas development. “We are seeing gas drilling on public lands at a magnitude greater than anything we’ve experienced, and it threatens to forever damage many of our most treasured Western places if not done carefully,” said Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society. In some places in the Rocky Mountain West, the consequences have been disastrous (‘Running on Empty,” September-October).

Allowing access to public land for a renewable energy source (that also results in fewer carbon emissions) could be an improvement on an old policy. The initiative could allow leases on some national forestland, but just like with oil and gas leases, existing protected areas like Yellowstone National Park will be off limits.

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