Tribes Sue Feds Over Geothermal Leases on Sacred Land

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

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – On the northern tip of California, a rugged landscape of volcanic rock, lava beds and conifer forests has served as the ancestral home of Native Americans for thousands of years. But things changed some decades ago when corporate interests began creeping onto the rocky terrain.

Seeking to harness the power of the earth’s inner heat, energy giant Calpine Corporation won a U.S. government contract in 1982 to explore geothermal energy on 2,560 acres of national forest in the Medicine Lake Highlands of Siskiyou County.

Now some 37 years later, members of the Pit River Tribe claim the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has allowed Calpine to squat on their sacred land for decades, even as the company fails to meet lease renewal requirements by making “diligent efforts” to produce geothermal power.

“Plaintiffs challenge the validity of the lease on the grounds that BLM and the United States Department of the Interior are engaged in an ongoing failure to comply with their mandatory duty to terminate the lease, as required by the Geothermal Steam Act,” the tribe states in its 23-page complaint filed Monday in the Northern District of California.

According to the lawsuit, Houston-based Calpine has not drilled or tested a geothermal well in the area since 1988, when it reported one site capable of generating less than 5 megawatts of electricity. BLM is required to review the lease every five years and terminate if Calpine fails to show it can produce commercially viable geothermal power.

The tribe says Calpine’s continued control of the land, bureaucratically known as the Glass Mountain Geothermic Unit, interferes with its members’ use and enjoyment of sacred ground, including the observance of ancient customs and traditions.

One tribal ritual compels new fathers to run to the mountains where they dance and swim to celebrate the birth of a child. Young girls also hold ceremonies in the mountains to mark their transition into adolescence. Boys seek guardian spirits in the rocky hills who will grant them good fortune in adulthood. Another custom includes shamans embarking on vision quests in the mountains to search for tamakumi, a powerful spirit known to grant shamans the power to heal.

It’s not the first time the Pit River Tribe has sued the federal government over geothermal leases in the area where three national forests – Modoc, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity – meet at the northern tip of the state.

In August 2016, a federal judge in Sacramento declared 26 of the bureau’s geothermal lease renewals in the Glass Mountain Unit area invalid. That ruling is currently under appeal.

The United States produces the most geothermal energy on the planet with 16 billion geothermal kilowatt hours harnessed in 2017, or 0.4% of all electricity generated in the U.S. Seven states – California, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho and New Mexico – have geothermal plants. California produces 73 percent of the nation’s geothermal power, the most of any state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Geothermal plants generate electricity by transforming high-pressure water from deep inside the earth to steam that spins power-generating turbines.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday include Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense, Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center and Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment.

The Bureau of Land Management and Calpine Corporation did not immediately return emails seeking comment Monday afternoon.

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