Geothermal Power Would Harm California, Claims Lawsuit

Geothermal Power Would Harm California, Claims Lawsuit
July 1, 2004

James M. Taylor, J.D.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News, a national monthly... (read full bio)

The harnessing of geothermal power, one of the "renewable" resources frequently lauded by activist groups as an alternative to carbon-based fuels, will cause irreparable harm to California's most precious environmental resources, warns a coalition of environmentalist groups in a recently filed federal lawsuit.

Environmental Disruption
According to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of East California, two proposed geothermal power plants in northeastern California will introduce "highly toxic acids" into geothermal wells in the state's Medicine Lake Highlands, turning the lands into "an ugly, noisy, stinking industrial wasteland."

The Medicine Lake Highlands are the remnant of an ancient volcano approximately 30 miles east of Mount Shasta and 10 miles south of the Lava Beds National Monument.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, construction of the geothermal plants would include erecting 150-foot high drilling rigs, nine-story power plants on 15-acre pads, and seven-story cooling towers capped by steam plumes. Constructing and operating the plants would require crisscrossing the area with roads, high-tension transmission lines, and pipelines.

According to the federal suit, operating the geothermal plants will require injecting "highly toxic acids" into virgin geothermal wells to increase geothermal power production. That, the suit asserts, will create groundwater pollution and pose a threat to trout and other wildlife in the regional watershed. The geothermal plants themselves would require excavating 750,000-gallon toxic waste sumps. Moreover, trucks and drilling equipment would break the normal solitude of the region, the environmentalist groups say.

Toxic Waste a Problem
"Geothermal sites often are located in protected wilderness areas that environmentalists do not want disturbed," observed Robert Bradley, president of the Houston, Texas-based Institute for Energy Research. "Geothermal is not only a scarce, depleting resource, it has negative environmental consequences despite the absence of combustion.

"In some applications," explained Bradley, "there can be CO2 emissions, heavy requirements for cooling water--as much as 100,000 gallons per MW per day--hydrogen sulfide emissions, waste disposal issues with dissolved solids, and even toxic waste. Those problems and the location problem have caused some environmental groups to withhold support for geothermal since the late 1980s."

"Geothermal power plants tend to emit hydrogen sulfide (H2S)--which is toxic at fairly low levels--and mercury," said Tom Tanton, general manager for renewables and hydropower at the Electric Power Research Institute. "The level of emissions from geothermal are quite varied and depend on both the geothermal resource as the technology used and the geography."

Added Tanton, "Whatever is not reinjected into the ground can cause local groundwater pollution. Geothermal fluids are always foul smelling--they smell like very rotten eggs due to the H2S. The fluids are highly brackish and contain high levels of heavy metals."

Tanton also noted geothermal power plants are linked to increased seismic activity.

"The folks in Anderson, California, and other areas surrounding Geysers steamfield, the world's largest developed geothermal field, have fairly complained about induced seismicity brought about by geothermal operations," said Tanton. The seismic activity results when reinjected materials replace extracted steam, he explained.

In addition to the environmental harms of geothermal technology, operating the plants would require, according to Los Angeles television station KCBS, more than $50 million in taxpayer subsidies.

The plaintiffs in the suit include the Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment, the Klamath Forest Alliance, the California Wilderness Coalition, and the Fall River Wild Trout Foundation. Together, the groups have formed an organization called the Save Medicine Lake Coalition.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is

James M. Taylor, J.D.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News, a national monthly... (read full bio)