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Toad’s endangered listing forces Ormat, Interior to rethink proposed geothermal project


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

A planned geothermal plant in Nevada was sent back to square one last week after federal land managers decided to reexamine their approval of the project following the listing of a small rare toad living in adjacent springs as endangered.

On Wednesday, the U.S Department of the Interior announced plans to undertake a new environmental analysis of the Dixie Meadows geothermal project by Ormat Nevada Inc, following the Dixie Valley toads listing under the Endangered Species Act and other new information.

All construction on the geothermal project will be banned until the new environmental review is completed and federal wildlife officials determine that the project’s construction and operation is not likely to jeopardize the Dixie Valley toad, said federal land managers.

Last year in December, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Dixie Valley toad as endangered, a status that requires federal land managers to consult with FWS on projects with the potential to harm threatened and endangered species. 

Federal land managers initially signed off on the geothermal project in November 2021 — before the toad’s listing — authorizing two 30-megawatt plants and associated construction on federal land in Dixie Valley, a spring-fed desert wetland 100 miles northeast of Reno. 

The following month, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the Bureau of Land Management over the project’s approval, which they argued would damage a nearby spring considered sacred to tribes and endanger the rare desert toad.

Months of legal battles came to a head after FWS listed the rare toad as endangered and named geothermal development’s danger to the toad as a factor in their decision.

In an effort to ease criticisms from federal wildlife officials the Nevada-based renewable energy company submitted a plan to significantly reduce the size of the project to a single geothermal power plant with an estimated output of about 12 megawatts, which was approved by the Bureau of Land Management.

The previous environmental review by the BLM determined the proposed geothermal project would have “no significant impact” on the survival of the rare toad. However, a new environmental review and the toad’s endangered status may end with different results, say conservationists. 

“We have been arguing for years that the existing environmental analysis was insufficient,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the existing review was sufficient, they wouldn’t need to go back to the drawing board and do a new one. In fact, it’s almost as if we had won our lawsuit, since this is the exact outcome we were seeking – a fresh environmental review to correct all of the deficiencies of the previous ones.”

Still, Ormat has signaled support for the BLM’s decision to initiate an additional environmental review. Last week, the company publicly asked the BLM to begin a supplemental National Environmental Policy Act review for the Dixie Meadows geothermal project.

Laura Jacobsen, senior legal counsel for Ormat, said the company believes the new environmental review is “the best path forward to an operating project.” She argued that creating a path for federal land managers to consult with the FWS during a NEPA review would streamline the approval process.

“We view it as a more efficient path forward to get everyone, all the stakeholders, involved in a single process so that we have a document at the end of the day that moves this project forward in a single comprehensive review, as opposed to this kind of serial review process that was happening,” Jacobsen said.

Donnelly said his organization would continue to fight against the project, arguing that “a thorough and comprehensive review would always result in a negative decision for the project because the impacts are unmitigable.” 

Geothermal power plants draw on wells drilled deep in the earth’s crust, pumping up steam and hot water to power giant turbines that generate electricity. Opponents of the Dixie Valley geothermal project and federal wildlife officials have emphasized research showing the negative effects of prior geothermal development on groundwater-dependent springs.

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 commercial power production started in 2012.

Ormat has repeatedly argued that federal wildlife officials used faulty data based on older geothermal technology when they determined the Dixie Valley geothermal project was a possible risk to the Dixie Valley toad. Ormat contends newer technology pioneered by the company would eliminate the groundwater depletion attributed to older, outdated geothermal plants the company has since phased out.

“We do believe we’re going to successfully show with monitoring and the science that the plant and the operation of a plant does not pose an existential threat to the toad or the springs,” Jacobsen said, adding that Ormat does not anticipate the project will be delayed any further.

Ormat has also signaled some doubts, however. In a May quarterly report, Ormat told shareholders the company “cannot 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.”

Donnelly maintains that the new environmental review shows that the BLM erred when they approved the project and “vindicate the arguments in our litigation.”

“Ormat can play all the linguistic games they want but the bottom line is, they’re back at square one, but now, unlike in the previous two rounds of environmental analysis, the Dixie Valley toad is listed under the Endangered Species Act,” Donnelly said.

Nevada Current
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