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Geothermal Project In Central Oregon Faces Backlash

Developers are drilling test wells on National Forest land outside the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. That's about 25 miles south of Bend.

The effort is part of a search for geothermal power in central Oregon. Geothermal power is considered to be a renewable energy source, but that doesn’t mean the Newberry project is being embraced by environmentalists. Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports.

Currently, a 175-foot-high drilling rig is punching a hole in the earth outside the Newberry Monument – drilling almost 2 miles down.

The drillers say down in the earth is a untapped resource that the state could use to help solve its energy problems.

Geothermal energy, mainly used in the past for heat, is now thought of as a viable energy source. It’s considered renewable – plus, higher oil and gas prices have meant geothermal is now financially competitive.

Connecticut-based Davenport Power says it could spend more than $400 million to find and tap a reliable source of hot water below the earth’s crust.

Doug Perry is the president of Davenport Power.

Doug Perry: “What we did is run a bunch of geophysical surveys and studies, to get a picture of geological formations down deep. I liken it to doing an MRI of the earth. And we came up with three areas where we wanted to drill exploratory wells. And that’s what we’re doing right now – drilling exploratory wells.”

It’s operating on leases from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

The company says it already has a deal to sell 120-megawatts of power from the site to a utility in California.  That’s enough to power about 50,000 homes.

The company says the plant will generate jobs and economic growth in the region.

But even a renewable energy source like geothermal hasn’t been greeted with open arms by local environmentalists.

The state Department of Energy held a public hearing in Bend recently, after the developers notified the state they intended to file a license to build a power plant.

The majority of the 25 or so people in the audience were critical of the plan, including Asante Riverwind, the eastern Oregon field rep for the Sierra Club.

He says you can see  the problems  just by driving up to the site of the drilling rig.

Asante Riverwind: "If you go up to the Newberry and Paulina Peak lookout, and look to the west, you will see a big, tall tower, derrick. It’s the drill tower. It’s a big industrial site. Massive clearcut, all kinds of piping. Heavy equipment.”

Many environmentalists and conservation groups view geothermal as vastly superior to coal or fossil fuels.

But Riverwind says problems remain with some of the exhaust from the earth.

Asante Riverwind: “If it wants to be green, and I fully support the concept of geothermal moving towards being green. But they can’t play Napoleon and crown themselves green. The conservation community and the greater community at large will tell them when they are there.”

Doug Perry, with Davenport Power, says government geologists have answered many environmental concerns.

Doug Perry: “We are working, and continue to work with environmental groups. Is it always going to be popular with everybody? Some of the people who oppose this, I recently saw one of them who said, ‘Geothermal’s not so bad, but they need to take it someplace else.’ Well, that’s a NIMBY – not in my backyard. But, we hope to convince them that although they may not consider us perfect, we plan to be a good neighbor and hopefully everybody can benefit.”

Riverwind says there are some major parallels between the local central Oregon uneasiness with geothermal – and the movement to stop the construction of  a liquefied natural gas terminal near the coast.

Asante Riverwind: “People can say it's NIMBY, not in my backyard. Or, not in this treasured monument. This is a world, treasured area. Do we want to put a big industrial plant in the middle of Yellowstone Park? Do we want to tap Yellowstone Geyser, that’s geothermal. No one is proposing that. This is Newberry Monument, which is one of our Yellowstones, in Oregon.”

The company says it plans to begin the permitting process with the state and feds sometime next year. And it’s through those public processes that environmentalists say they’ll fight the project.

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