Keeping the Steam Up : Development must not be allowed to kill Old Faithful

Imagine Yellowstone National Park without the Old Faithful geyser. America just wouldn't be the same.

The geysers, fumaroles and hot pots of the United States' oldest national park attract millions of visitors. Yellowstone is one of only two geyser basins in the world that have not been destroyed or damaged by geothermal development. Now, outside the park, developers are beginning to drill wells into underground reservoirs that feed Old Faithful.

In the face of this danger, the full Senate will soon take up a bill establishing the Old Faithful Protection Act. Unfortunately, committee amendments have made the Senate version less effective than a House measure. To allow time for study of the threat, the House bill would prohibit the tapping of underground reservoirs of hot water by owners of land bordering Yellowstone in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The Senate version would temporarily ban development on private lands 15 miles outside the park's borders in Wyoming and Montana but would exclude Idaho.

Both the Senate and the House bills ban federal geothermal leasing. However, the Senate bill would lift the federal moratorium on private development should Montana or Wyoming enact state geothermal legislation, which Idaho already has. Less-protective state measures might undermine the long-term goal of preserving Old Faithful. The Senate should change its bill to conform with the more sensible House measure.

Yellowstone has the Earth's largest geothermal basin, accounting for 60% of the world's geysers on its 2.2 million acres. That was one reason Congress established the world's first national park there in 1872.

The Church Universal and Triumphant is one developer near Yellowstone, having tapped into a geothermal well 10 miles north of the park to provide water for a swimming pool.

There is no question that geothermal systems have been depleted by development: In New Zealand, geysers are down to 20 from 150. Putting Yellowstone at such risk would jeopardize one of the country's true national treasures.

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