Current paper analyzes the contents of the “Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Battle Mountain District Leases in Nevada” sample environmental consequences report and classifies the environmental and economic impacts listed into significant and non-significant. The choice has been made based on the information already included into the report as well as supported by historical evidence and other important criteria extracted from peer-reviewed academic publications.
Keywords: geothermal energy, geysers, quenching, social barriers, renewable energy sources, geothermal resources, landscape changes, environmental impact.
Impact Classification—Environmental Impact Assessment and Economic Impact Assessment – Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
Geothermal resources and geyser basins containing them can provide significant value for recreation, economical development, and scientific progress including geology, biology, and biotechnology up to new developments in biotechnology of technological processes. Historically, geysers have been used in a geologically improper way as renewable energy sources, plus they were subjected to intrusive scientific research sampling techniques or nearby developments, all having irreversible adversary effects on their structure and ecosystem, generally known as quenching. The geologic features of geysers are extremely complex. Geysers are formed as composite resources containing many interesting hydrothermal and biological features, including clusters of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and heat-tolerant plant communities. Those are extremely sensitive, and most quenched geysers never recover. The reasons are not known, but most likely the underground plumbing gets easily clogged by mineral precipitates. About 260 of the world’s geysers have been driven to extinction over the past few decades, including about 100 geysers in New Zealand, 46 in Iceland, and 56 in the USA. Most of the world’s extinct geysers were quenched by geothermal energy development (e.g. home heating or industrial-scale power generation) (Barrick, 2010).
Protection of geothermal resources in the U.S. is governed by several federal documents like the “Geothermal Stream Act” (GSA) of 1970 and the “National Environmental Policy Act” (NEPA) of 1969. Unfortunately, the outdated regulations do not provide comprehensible protection for all geological features of geysers, which is especially critical in the related case of the Yellowstone National Park (Barrick, 2010). The issue of leasing geysers for energy production purposes thus has turned into a wide controversy and generally strong social barriers exist for developments of all kind of renewable energy landscapes (Pasqualetti, 2011). In the case of the U.S. as a country , and especially Yellowstone National Park as a separate entity, current situation is also worsened by the failing of the US Congress to adopt the proposed “Old Faithful Geothermal Protection Act” in the mid-1990s, which was supposed to provide better protection for geysers and hot springs (Barrick, 2010). Geothermal energy, being site specific and having the lowest energy density among other fuels has the strongest landscape burden, and thus, produces ta major obstacle to development (Pasqualetti, 2011).
The following chapters will describe the lease application NVN 074289 issued to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, 2008). The proposed action is to conclude a lease contract with a private geothermal developer for an area within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Battle Mountain District. “The leased area is 440 acres of land, which lies along the western edge of the Big Smoky Valley below the lower slopes of the eastern side of the Toiyabe Range, Nye County, Nevada” (BLM, 2008).
Properties and Resources of the Leased Land
No extraction of leasable, salable or locatable resources is happening currently on the lease area and the closest surrounding environment. A major industry in the region has historically been mineral resources. Previously located and developed sites of minerals include gold, copper, silver, lithium, molybdenum, bentonite clay, fluorspar, mercury, diatomaceous earth, and turquoise (BLM, 2008). Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is historically associated with rich precious metals, including silver and gold prospects, in the areas of Birch Creek, the Reese River, Twin Rivers, Big Creek, Washington, Kingston, and Jett mining districts (BLM, 2008). The BLM Tonopah Resource Area includes 65 mining districts and 15 large mines operating since 1994. One quarter of section 18 included into currently pending lease area, has been identified by BLM “as having moderate potential for locatable minerals” (BLM, 2008). Generally, “160 wells were drilled in surrounding areas and seven producing fields had been discovered” (BLM, 2008). “Additional areas with moderate to high potential for oil and gas minerals that are present in the Tonopah RMP; none are within or adjacent to the pending lease area” (BLM, 2008).
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Wrango stony fine sandy loam is the main type of soil in the proposed leased area and there is no farmland located within mostly because of the substrate properties and obviously because approximately half of the area is immediately adjacent to the National Forest. The mentioned type of soil “is formed in stone or boulder overlying mixed alluvium, composed of no greater than five percent Calcium carbonate” (BLM, 2008). The soil is too drained, with a high water transmission capacity, therefore, the risk and frequency of flood are reduced. Silt loams from the east side of proposed lease site are intermixed into the soil, providing a high water capacity in comparison to the dominant type of soil (BLM, 2008).
“Average climate of the pending lease area includes bright sunshine, small annual precipitation (averaging five inches per year), clean, dry air, and exceptionally large daily ranges of temperature” (BLM, 2008). Precipitations form three intermittent water streams flowing west from Toiyabe Mountains, including one stream that is fed by springs located northeast of the proposed lease site; including springs 0.5 mile to the east, several on the south of Wineglass Ranch, and several ones being directly adjacent to the leased site; although the site itself does not include any springs.
Proposed lease site lies within the Humboldt River Basin, in the Great Basin Hydrologic Region, which mostly contains trending mountain ranges and intermountain valleys with closed drainage (BLM, 2008). Streams that originate within this basin do not have an outlet to the ocean. Moreover, leasing of geothermal resources does not impact wildlife and fish, except for the lease site directly (BLM, 2008).
Previous research and assessment in probable vulnerabilities of public water supply systems did not detect any surface water contamination (BLM, 2008).
The main water management issue within the region is protection of existing resources, which can be divided into two major categories:
- Protection of spring and stream discharge rates which could be reduced by diversions for industrial or private use which includes interstate and inter-county management and use; improper instream flows maintainment, drought or the effects of groundwater pumping in the areas adjacent to surface water bodies (BLM, 2008). The latter is directly related to the current lease application testing and approval process.
- Maintenance of surface water quality, management of riparian areas.
The sources of noise in the region include mostly natural factors like wind, recreational use of the areas, and wildlife, excluding traffic from surrounding roads (BLM, 2008).
Previous leases and Land Workings in the Region
The BLM Tonopah Resource Area includes two additional known geothermal resource areas at Round Mountain and Fish Lake Valley (BLM, 2008). The former geothermal resource area has been developed by the Round Mountain Gold Corporation, which extracts the geothermal energy for direct-use at the Round Mountain Gold Mine. Darrough hot springs in the northern portion of the pending lease area being directly connected to the Tonopah Area has been drilled and flow tested prior to the release (BLM, 2008). Fish Lake Valley has been issued a permit for a 5 MW plant in 1987. The plant currently operates and sells power to Southern California Edison (BLM, 2008).
First, it is necessary to mention that the proposed energy development is a binary power plant type, which is the lowest in power efficiency and contributes only 9% to the overall share of geothermal plant technologies deployed within the U.S. Both binary and back pressure plant types in average generate about 5MW/unit, the latter is also the least represented type, corresponding to 4% share (Bayer, Rybach, Blum, & Brauchler, 2013). Such amount of power can supply approximately 1000 citizens. It can in no way be seen as a significant amount of exported energy from the region. Nevertheless, a similar 5 MW project exists.
Impacts that should be considered as long-term and significant are the land use and the fact that the existing natural infrastructure gets disrupted by roads and most probable destruction of precious geothermal features in account with the years of operation (Pasqualetti, 2011). When even far reaching effects on ecology such as from subsidence, extinction of geysers, etc. will be included, especially given the relatively high value of m2 used per kW·h for the entire term of plant operation, the establishment and operation of such plant may seem unreasonable.
Short-term impacts include emissions from machinery while building and operating the plant, especially into the atmosphere of the protected Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, but these may count as insignificant, especially if compared to other disruptions. Emissions of fugitives from plant operation itself will not be presented or reduced to an insignificant minimum since the proposed binary plant type usually operates in a closed cycle (Pasqualetti, 2011).
Water consumption is another significant factor, given the previously described properties of current area and requirements for preservation of instream flows and prohibition of ground water pumping. Installation of geothermal plants typically requires a considerable amount of fresh water, starting from the drilling stage (Pasqualetti, 2011; BLM, 2008). On the other hand, the proposed binary plant type does not consume a lot of water during full operation because of being air-cooled. The mentioned dry air climate and exceptionally large daily ranges of temperature make the stability of plant operation in air-cooled mode and the particular choice of plant technology questionable; especially when compared to water-flash and air-flash types, which also consume least possible amounts of water and may promise higher output power (Pasqualetti, 2011). The report also mentions a probable direct impact of water consumption on future geothermal development (BLM, 2008).
Geothermal plants generally produce a local environmental impact only (Barrick, 2010; Pasqualetti, 2011). Given the abandoned state of the pending lease site, the social, noise, and biodiversity impacts may be considered insignificant. Other insignificant factors are seismicity, vegetation, fish and wildlife, threatened species, and cultural resources impacts.
Economic impacts in the short term are insignificant since the proposed plant can supply nearly 1000 citizens while the county population is significantly higher – 46,693 (BLM, 2008). Selling the mentioned amount of electric power to the national electrical grid can also provide a minimum amount of county budget income from taxation since this is a private leaser. The report mentions no impact on tribal interests, socioeconomics, and environmental justice (BLM, 2008). The long-term economic impacts are hard to predict. After the completion of plant operation period, mining and selling the possible minerals lying within the leased site could provide some local economic change. On the other hand, the destruction of geyser commodity is unclear economically in the long term. However, the maintenance of geyser geological structures and careful research of those have potential for new scientific breakthroughs with immediate global economic impact – like the discovery of thermal bacteria and use of their enzymes for DNA processing and industrial chemistry earlier (Barrick, 2010; Pasqualetti, 2011).
While on a quantitative scale – by calculating the number of impact categories, the number of impacts that are significant is less than the corresponding number of insignificant ones, the cumulative amount of damage from mentioned long-term impacts can overweight the rest. Qualitatively, the development of geothermal energy landscape on proposed lease can be seen as a small-scale project providing power and/or some sales income to the local community; operating very inefficiently and generally at the cost of irreversible damage to precious natural resources. This is an ironic case of implementing “renewable energy”. On the other hand, since the land has some potential for mineral resources, eliminating geysers as the precious commodity interfering with further land developments could be an important strategical step to extracting and selling those resources too.