Feds weigh geothermal leases near Mount Baker

The U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to lease parts of forest lands around Mount Baker so that companies could explore tapping the heat below the Earth’s surface to generate electricity.

At least one company has expressed interest in 2013 in leasing about 22 square miles of federal land near the active volcano in northwest Washington for geothermal exploration.

The federal agency is proposing to do one broad environmental review of about 130 square miles in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to include that land as well as any future lease nominations. Of the area reviewed, only about 18 square miles would be available for leasing.

Designated wilderness areas around Mount Baker would not be included in the leasing area, said Eric Ozog, realty specialist for the Forest Service.

No land would be disturbed during this early phase, Ozog said. If the agency decides to lease the land and under what conditions, the Bureau of Land Management would handle the leases.

More site-specific environmental reviews would be required after companies obtain a lease and submit a plan for exploration and development, said Ozog, who added that one broad review would be more efficient and cost-effective.

“We decided to analyze a wider area because there’s always a possibility that someone is going to nominate another area,” Ozog added.

The Forest Service will take public comment through Dec. 1, and it plans to release a draft environmental assessment early next year. A decision is expected mid-May.

Geothermal power has been seen as an attractive renewable energy source, but little geothermal exploration has occurred in Washington state.

Most of the nation’s geothermal energy production occurs on federal lands, mostly in California and Nevada. Other states with geothermal activity include Oregon, Utah, Idaho and New Mexico.

In Washington state, the Bureau of Land Management has issued four leases covering about 13 square miles in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to Gradient Resources, formerly Vulcan Power Co., agency spokesman Michael Campbell said.

Last year, the Forest Service also agreed to lease about 19 square miles of federal lands in the Skykomish area of Snohomish County.

A coalition of conservation and recreation groups opposed that decision because of the proximity to the Wild Sky Wilderness and concerns that potential drilling would harm wildlife habitat and other resources.

The government put those lands up for competitive bidding in September, but it did not receive any bids, Campbell said. That means a company or anybody has two years after the sale to lease those lands.

Campbell said he couldn’t reveal the name of the company that nominated those lands for lease because the lands haven’t been sold or leased.