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From Deep in the Earth: Newberry National Monument is hot stuff and soon might be powerful stuff 

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If you had any question in your mind that Central Oregon has its faults, all you have to do is look outside your living room, bedroom or bathroom windows. Somewhere within the visible horizon there will be some kind of volcanic feature on the landscape, such as Newberry National Monument - where investors hope geothermal energy abounds.

It's all those volcanic formations that get the blood racing in geothermal energy people who want to: (a) make money, (b) create cheap electricity and (c) cut the use of fossil fuels to keep the lights burning in your home, favorite grocery store and other places around town. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

The volcanic features we see all around us, such as Newberry and its hot springs in East Lake, are the results of melted rock squirting to the surface from miles deep over the past millions of years or so - and the extreme heat that came up with the volcanic stuff is still down there waiting to be tapped, thanks in part to the Brothers Fault System.

That fault system is immense and covers a lot of country, from the snow-capped Cascades to Nevada, Idaho and California. Officially, it begins with The Olympic-Wallowa Lineament (OWL) and the awesome forces of plate tectonics. Way back in 1945 (when I was a kid, and plate tectonics was only a gleam in a few geologists' eyes), cartographer Erwin Raisz noticed a peculiar physiographic feature on the landscape running approximately from the town of Port Angeles, WA, on the Olympic Peninsula to the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

Deep beneath the country rock we stand on is a series of faults, most running north and south - and some of them are whoppers. The next time you're driving south on Highway 97, pull off the road at Lava Butte and look at the lava flow on the east side of the road. You can't help but notice a big difference between the height of the lava on the west side of a huge crack with that on the east side. If you follow that crack south, it will run through Lava Cast Forest, then you'll see a big pile of rubble on the north rim of Newberry, that same crack goes right through the monument and comes out the other side. Newberry sits on top of a branch of that fault scarp. Lava Butte, Green Mountain right next door, and several other small volcanoes between Bend and Sisters and Black Butte are on the same fault.

I share all this with you because there's a scheme afoot. Rumor has it they plan to pump cold water into hot cracks deep in the earth in the area east of La Pine and create what is known as "Enhanced Geothermal Systems" (EGS).

The description of this scheme from Wikipedia reads as follows: "EGS are a new type of geothermal power technologies that do not require natural convective hydrothermal resources...When natural cracks and pores will not allow for economic flow rates, the permeability can be enhanced by pumping high-pressure cold water down an ejection well into the rock."

Got the picture? Drill a hole two to four miles deep east of La Pine and pump cold water under great pressure on the hot crack that's part of the Brothers Fault System. Oh, boy! The results of this "enhancement" would probably be very, very hot water and steam roaring to the surface! Good idea, wouldn't you say? The hotter the water, the greater the volume of steam, the faster the turbines turn, the more electricity and the more money. Can't beat that with a stick.

In addition to all the other wonderful treasures, the best part of living here is that Central Oregon is pretty much free from the risk of a major earthquake.

Now picture this: Our local daily ran a story not too long back telling us that geothermal developers were thinking about pumping effluent (treated sewer water) down on that section of the active fault under Newberry to "enhance" their project. In my book, that would be like injecting motor oil onto the brakes of a runaway train and standing in the middle of the tracks.

There are a lot of people in Central Oregon who don't even know where La Pine is, and a few really don't care. But hey, there are a bunch of schools and a library there, not to mention some wonderful people, so it wouldn't set too well with me if some geothermal outfit "exploiting our geothermal resources" caused the downfall of La Pine by injecting effluent (as in enhancing) onto a fault three miles deep, thereby causing an earthquake.

Oh, and about injecting effluent: The president of Davenport/Alta Power - the chief exploiter of geothermal energy in this area - seemed to like the idea of using the treated water as a source for EGS. In The Bulletin he is reported to have said, "It is certainly something that's been done elsewhere, and may make sense in Central Oregon as well." He's serious. Ever since the now defunct ORMAT outfit drilled their five exploratory shallow wells, Deavenport/Alta has sunk another 15 to 20, that's plenty of holes to experiment with.

One must wonder, however, if that "elsewhere" was in Switzerland. One would also wonder if Asante Riverwind, local big-wig in the Sierra Club, may be onto something when he said, "What about breaches in the casing, or what about fractures in the rock below that may lead to contamination of the springs that feed the lake?"

Yeah, what about all those wells pumping drinking water to the folks in La Pine? The ground under our feet is made up of flow after flow of all kinds of lava rock, mixed with of all kinds of soils. A geothermal casing containing effluent - or pumping fresh water to a home in La Pine - wouldn't stand a snow ball's chance in hell if smacked by a 3.5 earthquake, and there goes La Pine's water supply.

But there's another question. Where will Davenport and their partner, Alta, get all that effluent water? La Pine voted out the wonderful idea of a sewage plant in March and decided to stick to the same old-same old septic systems they've been using since the 1960s. But I guess the effluent could be piped to La Pine from Bend - if the USFS and BLM and DEQ would issue the permits.

According to Rod Bonaker, USFS point man for all geothermal development, no one has submitted one single piece of paperwork addressing this effluent injecting business. Maybe it's some kind of pipe dream The Bulletin fell for, or the geothermal folks are preparing us ahead of time for all the excitement. There are other EGSs around, but to my knowledge they've all been shut down; the risk of setting off an earthquake may be just too great. But, who knows?

Maybe lubricating a hot crack in the Brothers Fault system with effluent
might just trigger another volcanic eruption, and wouldn't that be fun? A new fire-and-thunder tourist attraction in lower Deschutes County. Think of all the destination resorts, guest lodges and stimulus money. Now that's exploitation! Or is it enhancement?

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