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Geothermal gets spotlight

Illustration of the Earth as a battery.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Geothermal power's permitting woes will get a spotlight in committee tomorrow.

Why it matters: New geothermal technologies could deliver huge amounts of low-carbon energy around the clock.

  • We're about to learn how much support there is for addressing policy constraints that industry says limit potential growth.

Driving the news: The House Natural Resources energy and mineral subcommittee has a hearing planned on a big slate of geothermal leasing and permitting bills. BLM official Ben Gruber is among those testifying.

  • The slate includes Russ Fulcher's bill to exempt geothermal exploration wells from NEPA reviews and John Curtis' proposal to limit the impacts of judicial review on geothermal permitting.
  • Also on tap is a bill from Rep. Young Kim to exempt geothermal wells on private and state land from federal drilling permit requirements, and legislation from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on cost recovery for permit processing.
  • This comes after the committee reported a bipartisan geothermal permitting bill that would create an industry-specific categorical exclusion.

How it works: Geothermal taps into Earth's heat deep underground to generate power. It currently makes up a tiny fraction of the energy mix because it requires highly specific geologic conditions.

  • But new companies developing "enhanced geothermal systems" promise to deliver benefits without ideal subsurface conditions.
  • They're generating a healthy amount of private and public investment, as well as interest from tech companies needing to power data centers.

Zoom in: What geothermal actually needs is parity with other energy technologies, said Xan Fishman at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

  • Fishman said the categorical exclusion would be a preferred option in this case — especially for geothermal exploration, because oil and gas gets similar treatment.
  • Generally, the industry wants to see consistency both in permitting processes and agency staffing and resources, said Ben Serrurier, government affairs and policy manager at Fervo Energy.
  • "There's a wide variation of how different permitting processes are implemented across field offices and between states," Serrurier said. This legislative slate would start to address that.

Between the lines: House Republicans included some similar provisions in H.R. 1, last year's big energy bill.

  • With that pretty much dead, this hearing is a good indicator of whether we'll see floor action on geothermal this year.
  • And lawmakers across the board have said they want to see geothermal provisions in any broader permitting package (though we remain skeptical about the prospects for that).
  • "My hope is that this is included in a broader bipartisan permitting reform," Serrurier said.
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