BLM Says Geothermal Exploration Underfunded

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The federal government has a backlog of 230 requests to go prospecting for geothermal energy, many of which were filed when Bill Clinton was in his first term as president.

"The average age of our applications is 9 years old," said Paul Dunlevy, who directs the geothermal program for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages some 264 million acres of land across the West and administers geothermal leases for some 436 million additional acres of other federal land, including in national forests.

"Geothermal in the Bureau of Land Management has not been a priority for funding for a number of years," Dunlevy told a gathering of geothermal explorers and state and federal regulators. "Geothermal doesn't get much because we're not high on the food chain."

Geothermal leases on BLM managed land numbered 400 in 2002, up from 282 in 2001, according to the Interior Department. Still, geothermal power accounts for a tiny fraction of the total U.S. energy supply.

The BLM organized Tuesday's meeting at its state headquarters to let industry and government officials share their concerns and suggestions about to develop the alternative energy source that uses superheated water from below the earth's surface to power generators.

Representatives from the BLM's regional offices across Nevada said geothermal interests have to compete with larger mining companies in seeking permits from the agency, which is hamstrung by a lack of money and people.

"We've taken a Band-Aid approach because of our budget and staffing constraints," said Richard Hoops, who directs the BLM's geothermal program in Nevada.

A request for more federal funds for geothermal exploration stalled in the Senate along with the $31 billion energy bill last year, Dunlevy said.

The provision of the measure providing additional money for alternative energy - geothermal, solar and wind - might be revived this year, Dunlevy said.

Daniel Schochet, vice president of ORMAT, a geothermal power producer headquartered in Sparks, Nev., said that pressure on utilities to increase their purchases of renewable energy provides geothermal interests with a valuable opportunity.

"If the industry flops, we'll have missed this opportunity," he said.

Despite renewed interest in geothermal energy spurred in part by a reference by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to Nevada as "the Saudi Arabia of geothermal energy," the industry is outgunned in Washington, according to John Snow, oil, gas and geothermal program manager for the state Division of Minerals.

"Geothermal does not have a large number of people on Capitol Hill. ... as opposed to oil and gas and coal. They've got hordes of people," he said.

Bob Abbey, state BLM director, said his goal is to work with the geothermal industry to speed the permitting process without being too hasty.

"We realize we're sitting on a lot of resources here that aren't being developed, but there are people out there that do not want to see public lands developed at all," he said.

"We want to do the right thing right the first time. We try to reduce the risk of further litigation."

Despite complaints from the state's geothermal interests, Dunlevy said Nevada - with about half of the applications pending nationally - fares better than most, with most requests processed within one year and only a handful on file more than five years.

He said it was the BLM's goal to clear the backlog in two to three years by processing about 100 applications annually. The bureau receives some 50 requests yearly.

The pending applications are divided about equally between the Forest Service and the BLM, which ultimately issues the permits, Hoops said. The oldest requests are pending in the Forest Service.

The group formed two committees to explore policy issues and technical matters and will meet again in May.