Geothermal Development and the Use of Categorical Exclusions Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969: NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Aaron Levine, Katherine Young

Research output: NRELPresentation


The federal environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) can be complex and time consuming. Currently, a geothermal developer may have to complete the NEPA process multiple times during the development of a geothermal project. One mechanism to reduce the timeframe of the federal environmental review process for activities that do not have a significant environmental impact is the use of Categorical Exclusions (CXs), which can exempt projects from having to complete an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement. This study focuses primarily on the CX process and its applicability to geothermal exploration. In this paper, we: Provide generalized background information on CXs, including previous NEPA reports addressing CXs, the process for developing CXs, and the role of extraordinary circumstances; Examine the history of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) geothermal CXs; Compare current CXs for oil, gas, and geothermal energy; Describe bills proposing new statutory CXs; Examine the possibility of standardizing geothermal CXs across federal agencies; and Present analysis from the Geothermal NEPA Database and other sources on the potential for new geothermal exploration CXs. As part of this study, we reviewed Environmental Assessments (EAs) conducted in response to 20 geothermal exploration drilling permit applications (Geothermal Drilling Permits or Notices of Intents) since the year 2001, the majority of which are from the last 5 years. All 20 EAs reviewed for this study resulted in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). While many of these FONS's involved proponent proposed or federal agency required mitigation, this still suggests it may be appropriate to create or expand an exploration drilling CX for geothermal, which would have a significant impact on reducing geothermal exploration timelines and up-front costs. Ultimately, federal agencies tasked with permitting and completing environmental reviews for geothermal exploration drilling activities and/or legislative representatives are the responsible parties to discuss the merits and implementation of new or revised CXs for geothermal development.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages17
StatePublished - 2014

Publication series

NamePresented at the 2014 Geothermal Resources Council (GRC) Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo, 28 September-1 October 2014, Portland, Oregon

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-6A20-62624


  • categorical exclusions
  • environmental assessments
  • geothermal
  • NEPA
  • permitting
  • regulatory


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