USGS and Umatilla Indian Reservation working together to explore geothermal potential

USGS and Umatilla Indian Reservation working together to explore geothermal potential Birch Creek Pivot Area, Umatilla Reservation lands. (source: Flickr, NRCS Oregon, Creative commons)
Parker O'Halloran 20 Jun 2017

The Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon is striving to become energy independent through geothermal.


The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon are interested in identifying geothermal resources for possible future development as the tribe strives to become energy independent.

The tribes contacted the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) about geothermal energy feasibility by investigating the Hite Fault Zone. The fault line runs through the Blue Mountains south through the Umatilla Indian Reservation,

Patrick Mills, project manager with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Department of Natural Resources believed the project to be mutually beneficial. Field studies began in mid-May, with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Energy Trust of Oregon.

“We know there are geothermal resources,” Mills said. “It’s a matter of finding out how close they are to the surface.”

“There are multiple components of this research,” according to Jonathan Glen, a USGS scientist investigating the area.

The USGS is taking magnetic readings from the air, using a low-flying Cessna fitted with an electronic magnetometer to detect underground features hidden to our eyes. The plane began flying June 8, and will take several weeks to cover a 5,000-square-mile area over Pendleton and the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Rick Blakely, geophysicist and research associate emeritus with the USGS, said that once all the information comes together, they will have a colorful map full of magnetic anomalies showing where faults may be hiding.

“We can learn something about the geology beneath the ground we can’t see,” Blakely said. “It helps us to locate faults we may not have known about before.”

Mills, who is heading up the CTUIR geothermal energy assessment, said he expects to finish the first phase of their analysis by the end of the year. The results will determine whether the tribes move forward with Phase II of the project, which will include more reconnaissance and test wells.

More than 200 springs and seeps have been identified on or near the reservation. Mills said they hope to find sources with enough heat and permeability that would allow them to develop an enhanced geothermal system.

The CTUIR has partnered with AltaRock Energy, a company that specializes in geothermal development, to analyze and interpret the subsurface models once they are formed.

Geothermal power would need to be harnessed at a scale of megawatts to be worth the expense, Mills said. If the numbers pencil out, it could be an important source of baseline, emission-free renewable energy to balance more intermittent wind and solar generation.

“It’s always going to be there. It’s always on,” Mills said. “It’s a reliable energy technology.”

Source: East Oregonian