swirls around geothermal project
January 14, 2006 by
LEE JUILLERAT H&N Regional Editor
Controversy continues to boil over plans to develop
a $200-million geothermal energy project at the
Medicine Lake Highlands.
The concept of generating
geothermal energy from the highlands, a collapsed
large shield volcano east of Lava Beds National
Monument, has been debated since the 1980s.
A series of developers have proposed drilling
geothermal wells at Medicine Lake and transmitting
energy over power transmission lines. Geothermal
energy has been touted as a clean alternative to
other sources of electricity, such as fossil fuels,
coal and nuclear energy. The state of California is
requiring energy providers to place a higher
reliance on alternative power, such as geothermal
and wind, to ease dependence on fossil fuels.
The work includes pumping naturally heated water
from underground sources, using the water to
generate power and then pumping the water back into
the ground to be reheated and reused.
Some studies indicate the Medicine Lake Highlands
has the largest identified geothermal resource in
the lower 48 states.
Opponents, including a combination of environmental
groups and Indian tribes, claim the area is sacred
ground and say development would harm plants
important to tribal cultures.
Calpine Energy Corporation wants to develop the
Telephone Flat geothermal plant, a 15-acre site
about a mile from Medicine Lake. The project calls
for 15 geothermal wells that would produce a
constant 49 megawatts of power. One megawatt is
enough energy to power about 1,000 households. The
estimated cost of building the plant, a 13-mile
transmission line and other work is nearly $200
million. The plant's construction would require
200-plus workers, and the plant would operate with
20 full-time employees.
A second plant, the
Fourmile Hill power plant, also is licensed for 49
Calpine project manager
Andrew Whittome said that because of ongoing
setbacks, there is no time line for developing
either project, although Telephone Flat has first
“By the nature of the beast, it's going to be phased
development,” Whittome said.
Last August, Calpine officials wanted to move ahead
with first phase development at Telephone Flat,
including clearings for three well pads, each about
3 to 4 acres, the 20-acre electrical power plant
site and access roads. Because of concerns, the BLM
and Forest Service, which manage federal lands at
Medicine Lake Highlands, imposed a temporary halt to
work pending further reviews.
The Telephone Flat
Geothermal Project Oversight Group, which was formed
in 2002 to monitor Calpine requirements dealing with
developing, operating and decommissioning a power
plant, will meet from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Jan.
27, at the Klamath National Forest headquarters
office in Yreka.
Group members include representatives from the Pit
River and Klamath Tribes, Shasta Nation, Shasta
Tribe, Inc., Native Coalition, Save Medicine Lake
Coalition, Medicine Lake Homeowner's Association,
Mt. Shasta Bioregional Ecology Group and Siskiyou
Tim Burke, the BLM's Alturas field office
manager, said that barring unforeseen circumstances,
the oversight process should be completed by early
March. On-site work could begin after that, although
various lawsuits could cause further delays.
Burke said Calpine officials will be asked how the
company's December bankruptcy filing will affect the
project. The company filed a Chapter 11
restructuring bankruptcy Dec. 20.
“The development does
continue,” said Calpine spokeswoman Katherine
Potter. “At this point there are no changes to our
Whittome said that despite the filing, “the rest of
our development projects are going ahead.”
The controversy will
play out on Jan. 28, the day following the oversight
meeting, when project opponents will hold a
demonstration in San Jose, Calif., at the Calpine
“We're going to demonstrate with signs and wear red
T-shirts,” said James Hayward of Redding, Calif.,
one of the demonstration organizers. “We want to
demonstrate because Medicine Lake has ancestral
lands that are sacred to several tribes. We want
Calpine to realize we're always going to be there.”
The “peaceful protest” is scheduled from noon to 2
p.m. at Calpine's corporate office near San Jose
A portion of the Medicine Lake Highlands has been
designated as a Traditional Cultural District by the
National Register of Historic Places. Indian tribes
claim the caldera has been used for spiritual,
ceremonial and healing purposes for more than 10,000
years by the Pit River, Modoc and Shasta tribes.
Geologic facts about Medicine Lake
The Medicine Lake Highlands and caldera, located
east of Lava Beds National Monument in California,
is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range.
A shield volcano, the mountain is about 150 miles
long around its base and 7,900 feet above sea level.
Medicine Lake, a bowl-shaped depression in the
mountain, is part of the old caldera. The 408-acre
lake, with a greatest depth of 152 feet, has several
cabins around a portion of its shores.
Geologists estimate that Medicine Lake has
sporadically erupted for a half-million years. The
eruptions were gentle, unlike the explosive
eruptions at Mount St. Helens and the historic Mount
Mazama. As a result, the sides of the volcano were
coated with several flows of basaltic lava, creating
a shield-shaped 20-mile diameter area with many
The most recent eruption occurred about 1,000 years
ago when rhyolite and dacite erupted and formed
Glass Mountain and created vents near the caldera's
Investigations indicate at least 17 eruptions have
occurred during the last 12,000 years, an average of
about one or two eruptions per century.
The volcano never rose more than about 2,500 feet
above the adjoining Modoc Plateau, but it remains a
significant geologic feature.
In his book, “Fire and Ice,” geologist Stephen
Harris says the original caldera that indents the
volcano's summit was about four-by-six miles. Unlike
the caldera that encases Crater Lake, Medicine
Lake's elongated summit basin has been largely
filled by later eruptions from vents on the
perimeters of the old caldera.
Basalt flows on the volcano's north and south flanks
contain lava tubes with several collapses. The
resulting lava tube caves are attractions at Lava
Beds National Monument, which is located on
volcano's north flank.
- By Lee Juillerat