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Why D.C. Is Hot for Geothermal

Drill, baby, drill.

The Capitol and geothermal energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The political coalition that has been assembled in support of advanced geothermal is bipartisan, but uni-regional: If you drew a broad strip from Las Vegas to Albuquerque and then dragged it north to the Canadian border, you would envelop Utah and Idaho (not to mention Arizona and big chunks of Wyoming and Montana). This stretch of John McPhee country includes some of biggest swaths of federal land — and some of the hottest rocks beneath it — in the country.

And so Senators Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, and James Risch of Idaho have found themselves crossing party lines, working together on a bill to encourage more production of geothermal energy, which the unique contours of this area make (potentially) especially abundant.

The Geothermal Energy Optimization Act, introduced last week, is a kind of test case for how a bipartisan energy policy could work. It combines deregulation with support for a non-carbon energy resource that leans heavily on expertise in the oil and gas industry while also not committing to any new spending.

But the bill isn’t just a victory for bipartisanship, it’s also a victory of geology. Thanks to tens of millions of years of plates sliding beneath each other and mountains collapsing, “you have a relatively thin crust before you get to that heat,” as Ben Serrurier, head of government affairs at Fervo, the enhanced geothermal startup, told me. (Fervo has operations in both Nevada and Utah.)

The bill would establish a “categorical exclusion” from environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act for some geothermal activity, including exploration, i.e. the drilling of wells to see whether a particular site is suitable for a geothermal project.

The law would both expand a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which established a categorical exclusion for some oil and gas projects, and write up a new one especially for geothermal. The bill would also require the Bureau of Land Management to have regular geothermal lease sales.

The 2005 bill was written at a time when an oil-industry-friendly White House wanted to make the country more energy self-sufficient, and deregulation oil and gas activities was an obvious way to do so. The GEO Act comes during another period of intense interest in energy policy, but not one in which the paramount goal is smoothing away obstacles to hydrocarbon extraction. Today, the United States is the biggest oil and gas producer in the world (thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, technology that’s used in “enhanced” geothermal energy projects) and both the White House and the Democratic Party are friendly to non-carbon energy.

But while existing tax credits have been successful in boosting wind and solar deployment, there is still need for so-called “clean firm” technologies, energy resources that can provide power at all hours of the day, no matter the weather.

By speeding up and adding some certainty to the permitting process, the bill’s provisions would “enable us to raise capital and move forward with more projects on a faster timeline,” explained Serrurier. “We already face challenges trying to raise project finance,” he said. “Then we show them the permitting timeline.”

The bill would also create a “strike team” within the BLM that could advise field offices and staff on how to process and deal with geothermal permits. “The agency needs to implement it — and care about implementing — for it to work out well,” Aidan Mackenzie, a fellow at the Institute for Progress, told me.

The bill is a small-bore example of the biggest yawning gap in post-Inflation Reduction Act energy policy: permitting reform. While it’s often discussed in the context of building new transmission lines necessary to connect IRA-subsidized clean energy projects to energy consumers, permitting reform would also be a boon to emerging energy resources like geothermal.

In an emailed statement, Senator Heinrich touted New Mexico’s geothermal progress. “Accelerating the adoption of geothermal energy nationwide is key to unlock a clean energy independent future, lower costs for working Americans, and create more high-quality jobs that New Mexicans can build their families around,” he said.

In theory, at least, the GEO Act seems like something that could actually pass in this Congress. After all, Republicans tend to support removing regulatory fetters from energy projects, especially energy projects involving drilling, and Republicans in the Mountain West really, really like telling the BLM not to raise too many hackles when it comes to drilling.

“Geothermal has been kinda bipartisan for a while,” Mackenzie said. “Bipartisan in the sense that everyone kinda supports it and no one is willing to take it along.” But that may be starting to change. “Recent news has made it feel a bit more real to folks,” he said. “Like, it’s a real industry that could be in our state.”

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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