Interior’s oversight of geothermal energy outdated, inconsistent, watchdog say

The Bureau of Land Management oversees geothermal energy development on public lands with a patchwork of regulations and no standardized inspection and enforcement program, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog said Monday.

The report by department Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall comes as the geothermal sector is moving toward “hydraulic shearing” water injection systems that could extend development beyond current areas in western states.

It also comes as the department presses to increase clean energy output from federal lands beyond the 2015 target of 10,000 megawatts set in the 2005 energy law passed by Congress.

The administration has already met that target through commitments to projects that are sited on or need transmission rights of way through federal lands.

That push includes eight new geothermal projects that have increased generation capacity from 942 megawatts to 1,366 megawatts since 2009, accounting for about 40 percent of national geothermal output.

The department updated its geothermal regulations in 2007, but old operational orders remain on the books, Kendall said. She said the result is a “web of requirements” rather than a clear order, and order language covering induced earthquake hazards that is not reflected in the regulations.

Kendall’s report did not report safety problems resulting from the lack of a standard inspection and enforcement system, but said that it has led to inconsistent oversight by BLM field offices and difficulties in information sharing.

Those inconsistencies have led to “different enforcement expectations for industry depending on where their operations are located,” Kendall said.

BLM agreed to review and update its orders and inspection criteria. It also agreed to review its inspection staffing levels and draw up new guidance on seismicity hazards.

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