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Sierra Club Conservation Policies

Geothermal Energy

The Sierra Club recognizes that geothermal energy is a potentially plentiful and favorable energy source. The heat energy stored beneath the surface of the Earth is vast, and could itself, if available, supply all of the energy needs of humankind. Its availability for direct use and for conversion to other forms of energy is, however, presently restricted to the utilization of naturally occurring underground reservoirs of hot water or steam. These are limited in number and capacity, generally depletable, and in many cases geographically situated far from sites of energy demand.

Also, the exploitation of these reservoirs is frequently accompanied by detrimental impacts on the environment. Among these are the emission of toxic gases and chemical substances which result in the degradation of air quality, the threat of water pollution, damage to living organisms, and hazards to public health. Additional problems arise from the heavily industrial character of geothermal operations for electrical generation; the frequent occurrence of exceptional natural, scenic, and archaeological values in geothermal resource areas; and the adverse effects that geothermal fluid removal may have on nearby hot springs and other natural thermal features.

This factual situation leads the Sierra Club to adopt a position of caution with regard to present geothermal technologies, to recognize that they cannot contribute more than a small percentage to the national energy supply, and to favor the advance of other methods of Earth heat utilization which can, for the most part, be developed independently of naturally occurring hydrothermal reservoirs. Specifically, we favor and encourage:

  1. Non-electrical, direct heat uses of Earth heat and geothermal fluids for space, agricultural, and industrial heating in situations and localities where naturally occurring hydrothermal features will not be degraded; and
  2. The development of techniques for the extraction of heat contained at depth in dry hot rock, in sedimentary basins, in geopressured systems, and in the Earth's normal temperature gradients. Such developments would assist in avoiding some of the impacts and hazards of geothermal operations under present technology, would provide greater flexibility in project and facility siting, and would vastly extend the available Earth heat resources.

With regard to the use of present technologies for the extraction and conversion of energy from geothermal fluid and steam reservoirs, we urge the following:

  1. The basing of all federal and state geothermal leasing decisions and all geothermal project permitting decisions at all government levels on appropriate data relating to anticipated environmental and social impacts;
  2. The resolution of land-use conflicts in geothermal resource areas by planning and zoning appropriate to the protection of natural, archaeological, and social values;
  3. The protection of hot springs, geysers, thermal pools, and other thermal features and their ecological, educational, aesthetic, and recreational values;
  4. The gathering of pre-development baseline data, the monitoring of environmental impacts and cumulative effects, and the adoption of appropriate environmental and social safeguards in relation to existing and proposed development projects;
  5. The development of improved directional drilling technologies for minimizing surface disturbance in resource production areas;
  6. The development of methods for the containment of geothermal steam and brines and accompanying gases and chemical components within enclosed production systems; and
  7. Geothermal reservoir management procedures that will allow a balance to be maintained, where possible, between field recharge and heat and fluid withdrawal.

Except where direct heat utilization for space heating in buildings and lodges is compatible with primary preservation purposes, the Sierra Club opposes geothermal leasing or development in the following areas:

  1. Lands included in or adjacent to federal, state, or local park systems or in wildlife refuges and management areas;
  2. Areas known to provide habitat for rare or endangered species;
  3. Areas designated as valuable for archaeological remains;
  4. Units of the National Wilderness preservation System;
  5. Units of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System;
  6. Units of the National Trails System;
  7. Areas reserved by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture for ecological, scenic, natural, wildlife, geological, educational, historical, or scientific value, including Primitive Areas, Roadless Areas, Natural Areas, and Pioneer Areas;
  8. Areas of de facto wilderness under study by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture for reservation as part of one of the preservation systems listed above; and
  9. Areas of de facto wilderness which are the subject of intensive study by recognized citizen groups or coalitions, resulting in formal proposals to the agencies and/or Congress for reservation as part of one of the preservation systems listed above.

Adopted by the Board of Directors, November 15, 1980

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