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Reno-based geothermal developer set to sue Biden administration over toad’s endangered listing

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by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

A geothermal energy developer vowed to sue the Biden administration over its decision to list a rare Nevada toad as endangered.

The endangered listing could potentially derail the company’s latest renewable energy project in Nevada.

In a letter filed Wednesday, Reno-based Ormat Technologies Inc. announced their intention to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 60 days for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by listing the Dixie Valley Toad as endangered.

After a federal review, the agency granted the toad an emergency listing under the ESA after determining the planned geothermal plant would likely threaten the toad’s survival.

“It’s a well-documented fact that geothermal power plants alter or dry up adjacent thermal spring systems. If Dixie Meadows’ hot springs dry up, or if the temperature or chemical composition of their discharge changes that could spell doom for the Dixie Valley toad,” USFWS wrote in comments to BLM’s environmental assessment on the project. 

Ormat, however, argues the agency’s analysis was based on outdated information and misinformed projections.

“In listing the Dixie Valley Toad, the Service largely overlooked and inappropriately discounted the Dixie Valley Project design and comprehensive monitoring and mitigation plan to avoid impacts to the species,” company spokesperson Zamir Dahbash said in an email Thursday.

Attorneys for the geothermal developer argue federal wildlife managers failed to base the toad’s listing on the best scientific and commercial data available, relying instead on the data of older geothermal technologies.

Ormat contends that newer technology pioneered by the company would eliminate the groundwater depletion attributed to older, outdated geothermal plants the company has since phased out.

One such plant is the McGinnis Hills geothermal power plant, managed by Ormat, where water flows in the Jersey Valley Hot Springs began declining not long after the commercial power production started in 2012.

Late last year, the renewable energy company significantly reduced the size of their planned geothermal power plant in order to ease federal criticisms of its potential impacts on the toad. The updated plan calls for the construction of a single geothermal power plant with an estimated output of about 12 megawatts, enough to power 12,000 homes. Ormat initially planned two power plants with a total capacity to power up to 60,000 homes.

Ormat said that despite their concessions, federal wildlife managers have continued to list the planned geothermal plant as a current threat to the toad “based on an outdated project design, inflated possible harms, and disregard for a mitigation plan.”

Attorneys for Ormat reasoned that under federal law, any potential future risks are not sufficient to list a species as endangered.

“Ormat is confident that no future risk to the Toad exists from its Project. And there is no evidence of current risk justifying the listing,” Dahbash said.

Listing the toad as endangered “directly and significantly affects Ormat’s proposed project,” according to attorneys for Ormat. 

The geothermal plant has been locked in a legal battle over the project since 2021 when the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in Churchill County sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over its approval of the project, which they say would damage sacred springs and endanger the rare desert toad. Dixie Meadow springs are considered a sacred site to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, who refer to themselves as the Toi-Ticutta, or “Cattail eaters,” because the native edible plant was traditionally harvested for food from marshes.

The toad was eventually granted a rare emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act, leading Ormat to pause construction on the project while risks to the Dixie Valley toad were evaluated. The toad was officially granted permanent protection months later.

Emergency listing of species as endangered is extremely rare. The Dixie Valley toad was the first species to be listed on an emergency basis in over a decade — and only the second to be emergency listed in 20 years — a fact Ormat attorneys highlighted in their letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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 Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe has been working to protect Dixie Meadows from development for years, and said they strongly support FWS listing the toad as an endangered species in response to the planned geothermal plant.

“This area is a sacred place of healing and ceremonies for the Tribe.  The toad and the Tribe have relied on the springs for survival for thousands of years.  Ormat’s proposed geothermal power plant risks drying up and forever changing the springs and wetlands, permanently ruining the Tribe’s sacred site and causing the toad to go extinct,” said Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe Chairwoman Cathi Williams-Tuni. “The decision to list the Dixie Valley toad as endangered was thorough and based on both the best available science and the Tribe’s indigenous knowledge.  Ormat’s threat of a lawsuit is nothing but corporate pressure to try to make money off damaging the Tribe’s sacred site.”

Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the conservation group is “deeply disappointed that Ormat has chosen to waste everybody’s time by threatening to file a frivolous lawsuit.”

“There’s widespread consensus among government and independent scientists that this geothermal project puts the Dixie Valley toad at risk of extinction,” Donnelly said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service made the right call to list the Dixie Valley toad as endangered and we’re confident that decision will hold up under scrutiny.”

An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the potential lawsuit.

Nevada Current
Nevada Currenthttps://www.nevadacurrent.com
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.

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