Battle heats up over geothermal energy facility


California tribes split over company's attempt to tap sacred site

TULELAKE, Calif. - It is among North America's most unique geological areas, a lush 200-square-mile stretch of sloping mountains and smooth, shield volcanoes deep within the Modoc National Forest. It is also one of the most disputed.

For local tribes, the Medicine Lake Highlands just below California's border with Oregon is sacred, where the Pit River Nation believes the Creator rested while creating the world.

But for the federal government and a major U.S. power company, the federally owned region is a rare and untapped source of geothermal energy, abundant with steam and potential profit.

Over the past decade, about 41,500 acres of the Highlands have been caught in a legal battle between the Pit River Nation and the San Jose-based Calpine Corp., which wants to erect on the site a 49.5-megawatt geothermal energy facility.

Although Calpine's plan was approved by the Bush administration and has won the support of a splinter group of the Shasta Nation, the Pit River Nation and environmental groups have held off efforts in court. Now, Calpine is appealing a 2006 ruling by the U.S. Courts for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated its two geothermal leases.

Meanwhile, opponents are holding protests in the San Francisco Bay area.

''All parts of the land are sacred; there really is no compromising,'' said Pit River member Mark LeBeau, 36.

For the 2,500-member Pit River Nation, the region is where they believe the Creator imparted his spirit in Medicine Lake, two miles from one proposed site.

Tribal members bathe in its waters for healing and coming-of-age ceremonies, and medicine men train on its bank, said Pit River member Radley Davis, 45. The area's spiritual energy should not be tapped, he said, in this case to utilize 300-degree rocks.

''We have been taught by our elders that this is a special place,'' Davis said.

Calpine, the nation's largest producer of geothermal energy, also views the region as special, but for a very different reason.

Steam generated by water dripping on the hot rock beneath the site - reached by drilling down 11,000 feet - could operate turbine generators that would produce geothermal electricity for about 50,000 homes, said Joe Ronan, Calpine's Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs.

Such massive geothermal deposits are rare in the United States, making the Highlands the ''most promising undeveloped geothermal resource in the world,'' according to Calpine brochures.

Ronan said the facility would help the state comply with a federal mandate that 20 percent of its energy is renewable, though at least 60 percent has been contracted for $14.5 million to the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Energy in Portland, Ore.

Calpine already operates 84 power plants including the largest geothermal operation in the world - 19 plants located on private and federally leased land in the Mayacamas Mountains, about 200 miles south of the Medicine Lake Highlands site.

And, for the past nine years, Calpine has operated a 555-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant on the Fort Mojave reservation in Arizona.

''Here, the tribe is our main opponent, but this is not their land,'' Ronan said.

Calpine has spent $18 million in federal lease payments and development costs so far, according to its appeal. The federal government stands to profit even more if the facility is built: Calpine must also pay it a royalty of 12.5 percent of the value of the energy it sells, said Sean Hagerty, the state's geothermal coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management.

Half the rental and royalty goes back to the state; 25 percent to the county, he said.

''It's a very risky venture and money-intensive, but they wouldn't be up there if they didn't think there was going to be a return on the investment,'' he said.

Hagerty estimates Calpine has also spent a half million dollars to lobby local tribes.

Calpine has helped the Shasta Nation with its petition for federal recognition and has offered training and jobs upon completion of the Highlands facility, Hagerty said.

Debate over the project has divided the Shasta Nation. Betty Hall is a member of a splinter group of Shasta that support the facility, which her son, Roy Hall Jr., chairs. He was not available for comment.

Hall said Calpine ''has helped a great deal'' in their recognition process, but she declined to speak further because ''there's been so much slander and false accusations.'' Hall said the group would later provide a written comment.

Other local tribes, the Modoc and Klamath, have steered clear of legal involvement.

The Pit River Nation's opposition to geothermal development in the Highlands began in the 1980s. The federal government considers geothermal energy a ''clean,'' renewable alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear energy. But opponents have long cited the release of chemicals from drilling, including arsenic, chromium and hydrogen sulfide.

Calpine officials insist the impact is minimal, but add the plant would operate continuously and include 50 miles of pipelines, transmission lines and access road.

In 2000, the Clinton administration blocked Calpine's proposal for a geothermal complex at Telephone Flat, two miles from Medicine Lake, approving only the proposed facility at the nearby Fourmile Hill.

Calpine sued the federal government for $100 million, but agreed to drop the claim if the Bush administration reconsidered the Telephone Flat plant. The administration approved it in 2002.

The Pit River Nation filed a lawsuit arguing the BLM renewed the Fourmile Hill leases without considering environmental reports or consulting with local tribes. In November 2006, the 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the tribe.

Calpine recently appealed. A decision is expected sometime in the next year.

Until then, opponents of the project say they plan to continue holding protests.

''The government has agreements not to bomb holy mosques when they're at war,'' said Pit River member Louis Gustafson, 26, at a protest in San Francisco in early April. ''But we have to go through all these hoops just for the protection of our holy place.''