by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
A Nevada-based renewable energy company plans to significantly shrink the size of a planned geothermal power plant in order to ease federal criticisms of its potential impacts on an endangered toad.
Earlier this month, federal wildlife managers announced the Dixie Valley toad, a species unique to Nevada, would be listed as endangered and provided permanent federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The toad’s only known habitat is restricted to 760-acres of wetland habitat fed by hot springs in the remote Dixie Valley northeast of Fallon, directly adjacent to a planned geothermal power plant by developer Ormat Nevada Inc.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the planned power plant posed an immediate and significant risk to the well-being of the Dixie Valley toad, leaving it at risk of extinction without federal intervention.
Paul Thomsen, the vice president of business development for Ormat, argues the endangered listing for the rare desert toad won’t impact the project’s eventual construction.
Federal wildlife managers’ decision to list the toad as endangered “was not unexpected,” said Thomsen. “Though Ormat disagrees with the FWS’s characterization of the potential impacts of its Dixie Meadows Geothermal Utilization Project as a basis for the listing.”
The toad’s endangered status “does not change the ongoing agency coordination and consultation that began earlier this year,” he added.
Last month, however, Ormat submitted a new scaled-back project proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reduce the project to a single geothermal power plant with an estimated output of about 12 megawatts, enough to power 12,000 homes. Significantly less than the original two power plants with a total capacity to power up to 60,000 homes previously planned.
“Ormat has sought approval of a smaller project authorization that would provide additional assurance that the species will not be jeopardized by geothermal development,” said Thomsen.
Federal land managers approved the geothermal project in 2021 after ruling it would not have a significant effect on the environment — a finding that does not require an environmental impact study — despite the rare toad’s presence. BLM instead reached an agreement with the Ormat to develop a plan to “lessen, minimize or mitigate the adverse effect to the site” once construction starts.
The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in Churchill County and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the BLM over the approval a month later, arguing the agency should have required an environmental impact statement – a far more rigorous review than the environmental assessment the BLM conducted – given the vulnerability of the Dixie Valley toad. The tribe also considers the springs a sacred site that is culturally and religiously significant to their way of life.
In a letter to BLM last month, Ormat acknowledged the toad’s listing “raised questions about how to analyze the project,” including the impacts of the approved geothermal development on the Dixie Valley toad, but maintains that an environmental impact study “is not necessary.”
Ormat has now asked a Nevada federal judge to put the lawsuit on hold while BLM considers their new scaled-back proposal, a move the Center for Biological Diversity called a delay tactic.
“This is just a clever maneuver to try to avoid a judgment on the case, which is looking increasingly grim for them as the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to push back against BLM and offer more evidence that the project will harm the toad,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Multiple investor reports filled by Ormat may signal the developer is feeling the heat.
Ormat warned investors and analysts in November that the company could not “reasonably predict the ultimate outcome of this litigation or regulatory process or estimate the possible loss or range of loss it may bear, if any.”
While Ormat noted they have “strong legal defenses,” they emphasized that any “additional construction delays imposed by the court, any mitigation or other measures” resulting from the Dixie Valley toad’s endangered status could cause the developer “to incur additional project costs, delay or impede the completion of the project and thus the eventual generation of revenues from the project.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe have asked the court to allow their lawsuit to move forward and deny Ormat’s request to place a hold on the case.
Donnelly argues Ormat’s new project proposal does not change the fundamental issues brought forward in their lawsuit.
“Simply reducing the size of the project does nothing to ameliorate the concerns about the project,” Donnelly said. “They will still be pumping and recirculating billions of gallons of water, they will still be desecrating a sacred site, they will still run the risk of drying up the hot springs.”
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.