Ninth Circuit Voids Geothermal Leases on Sacred Tribal Land

Glass Mountain, California, from the Medicine Lake caldera rim. (Julie Donnelly-Nolan / USGS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a decision hailed by some as a victory for tribal rights and ecological preservation, the Ninth Circuit on Thursday upheld voiding 40-year lease extensions for geothermal energy production on 26 plots of California land deemed sacred by Native Americans.

The rugged, volcanic landscape of the Medicine Lake Highlands in Siskiyou County has served as a revered site for ancient customs and rituals by Native American groups, including the Pit River Tribe, for the last 10,000 years.

“Putting a power plant up there is like putting a diesel generator next to the altar in your church,” Pit River Tribe attorney Deborah Ann Sivis, of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, explained in a phone interview.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management first leased the land for geothermal energy exploration in 1982. Houston-based Calpine Energy Corporation inherited those leases in an area where three national forests – Modoc, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity – meet at the northern tip of the state.

The Pit River Tribe and other groups sued the bureau in 2004, claiming its 1998 decision to grant 40-year lease extensions was illegal because the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970 only permits 40-year extensions if the potential for geothermal energy production has been proven.

In 2016, a federal judge in Sacramento granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The bureau appealed, arguing that because viable geothermal energy was found in one of 27 land units in that area, it could also grant 40-year lease extensions for 26 neighboring plots of land. On Thursday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel rejected that argument.

The law “only permits production-based continuations on a lease-by-lease basis, not on a unit-wide basis,” U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen wrote for the panel.

That means the bureau will not be able to renew leases for those 26 plots of land unless they undertake a required environmental review and consult with the tribal governments, because the area was designated as a cultural district in 1999 by the National Register of Historic Places.

“That’s what we wanted was for them to take a harder look at the cultural and environmental considerations,” Sivis said.

Beyond the sacred nature of the site, recent studies have shown groundwater in the area feeds into the Pit River, which flows into the Sacramento River and provides irrigation water for most crops grown in California’s Central Valley.

“For the tribe, it’s the integrity of the water and the land, and the absence of development,” Sivis said. “That’s the way they feel about spiritual landscapes.”

Other plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit include the Coalition For Medicine Lake Highlands Defense, Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, Save Medicine Lake Coalition and Medicine Lake Citizens For Quality Environment.

U.S. Circuit Judge William Fletcher and U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver, sitting by designation from the District of Arizona, joined Christen on the panel.

Christen was appointed by Barack Obama. Fletcher and Silver were appointed by Bill Clinton.

A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson said the agency is “reviewing the decision” and declined further comment.

Calpine Corporation and representatives of the Pit River Tribe did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

In April, the Pit River Tribe filed another federal suit in San Francisco claiming the bureau’s renewal of a separate geothermal lease in the Medicine Lake Highlands should also be voided because the leaseholder, Calpine, has made no efforts to develop geothermal energy there since 1988, when it found one site capable of generating less than 5 megawatts of electricity. The plaintiffs say the law requires the leaseholder make “diligent efforts” to produce geothermal power to maintain its lease.

A motion to dismiss hearing in that case is scheduled for Oct. 16 in Oakland.

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