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Senate unanimously approves regulation of geothermal well drilling (UPDATE)

By Adam Wise

A bill that would make geothermal well drillers a state regulated industry passed through the Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 156, which unanimously was approved, would lump drillers who install geothermal heat exchange systems into the same category as normal well drillers by allowing the state Department of Natural Resources to license and regulate those performing the work.

The systems install various lengths of tubing underground to gather heat from the earth and transfer it to a system above ground that converts the energy into heat or cool air for a home.

The state only requires owners to complete an application letting the DNR know it will be installing the system underground. The agency doesn’t oversee, or follow up on, those who drill the holes.

The Assembly companion to the bill, AB 201, was not scheduled Tuesday for consideration by the Assembly.

The legislation’s co-author, state Rep. Alvin Ott, R-Forest Junction, has said his proposal would require the drillers show proof that they had installed 20 to 30 geothermal systems in the past two years to receive licenses, and it would mandate annual training.

The Legislature has until Thursday to approve bills before their current session ends.

Keith Meyers, president of the Wisconsin Water Well Association, has said with no oversight, there’s no ability from the state to regulate shoddy work. He has said that faulty grouting, or improper sealing of holes at the surface give above ground contamination, such as oil, a mostly unobstructed path to groundwater.

While the geothermal systems still are more expensive than normal heating or cooling systems for homes and businesses, the systems have gained in popularity during the past decade or so.

The DNR has processed about 250 applications for geothermal heating in the past past two years, according to the agency, compared with about 10 applications a year in the late 1990s.

There’s no telling exactly how much more enforcement work the bill would create for the DNR, but it likely still will pale in comparison with normal water wells regulation.

Drillers in Wisconsin, from January 2006 to January 2012, installed 61,500 wells, which led to 387 violation notices and 26 cases referred to the Department of Justice, said Steven Sisbach, the DNR’s environmental enforcement and emergency management section chief.

Of the 26 cases, 22 yielded $612,316.16 in fines and restitution for the faulty work, he said.

If the Assembly moves to act on the proposal, the new standards would go into effect eight months after Gov. Scott Walker signs legislation.

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