Update: the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe is a plaintiff with CBD on this lawsuit against this project.
Another excellent piece by Sammy Roth of the LA Times in his Boiling Point newsletter. The Times has something like 99 cents for six months which IMHO is worth getting if you only read Sammy’s work. He also has links to interesting articles on wind and solar and wildlife that I hadn’t seen. And perhaps you can sign up for his Boiling Point newsletter without being a subscriber. This is a controversy about something considered to be good for decarbonization (geothermal) but has localized environmental impacts. We usually see this as a “good ENGO’s vs. bad industry” kind of thing, but this seems to be a “good ENGO vs. good industry” kind of thing. I like how Sammy interviews both Patrick Donnelly of CBD and folks from Ormat, the geothermal company, and tries to put the pieces together.
Looking through our lens posited yesterday considering the Biden Admin and Native people, I don’t see any mention of Native concerns in this piece (I’m checking with the reporter). Also the Biden Admin would have to go with the science of the USFWS because of the unique science-based characteristics of ESA (Jon can correct me on this). And perhaps their own views of “scientific integrity” as Jon brought up here yesterday.
The nation’s largest geothermal power company is preparing to sue the Biden administration over its decision to protect a tiny toad, in the latest high-stakes showdown between renewable energy development and wildlife conservation.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — a copy of which was shared exclusively with The Times — Ormat Technologies Inc. warned Wednesday that it would sue the wildlife service in 60 days if the agency doesn’t revisit its decision to declare the Dixie Valley toad an endangered species. That decision might otherwise derail Ormat’s plan for a Nevada geothermal plant that could potentially supply climate-friendly electricity to California.
Federal scientists say the 2-inch amphibian’s wetland habitat — the only place it’s found on Earth — is threatened by Ormat’s renewable energy project. The Reno-based company disputes that conclusion, arguing it’s grounded in shoddy science.
Paul Thomsen, Ormat’s vice president of business development, told me federal officials wrongly assumed his firm’s geothermal production would drain the nearby Dixie Meadows, when the company’s tests have suggested otherwise. He also said the Biden administration had illegally invoked the Endangered Species Act based on speculative future harm to the toad.
“For us, the precedent there is terrifying,” Thomsen said. “If this action were to stand, many renewable energy projects in the West could be thwarted simply based on a concern, with no evidence that they may impact a species in the future.”
“We’re being convicted of a crime that we haven’t committed,” he added.
To help avert the worst consequences of global warming — which is already fueling deadlier and more destructive heat waves, fires, droughts and floods — the U.S. must build huge amounts of renewable energy infrastructure at a breakneck pace.
But across the American West, endangered-species concerns have emerged as a key barrier to construction of solar farms, wind turbines, power lines and lithium mines that would supply electric-car batteries. Lawsuits and protests from conservation activists, Native American tribes and rural residents are poised to slow or block a growing number of projects.
As far as Donnelly is concerned, the geothermal industry has a “dirty little secret,” which is that its facilities frequently dry up hot springs. He pointed me to a 2000 research paper from the U.S. Geological Survey concluding that when geothermal plants are built, impacts to nearby water features such as hot springs, geysers and steam vents “should be viewed as the rule, rather than the exception.” The paper cited several decades-old examples involving Nevada plants since acquired by Ormat.
“There’s this huge body of peer-reviewed literature,” Donnelly said.
When I asked Ormat’s Thomsen about that literature, he told me the geothermal plants cited in the research paper used an older technology that the company has phased out at most of its facilities. As for Dixie Meadows, he told me Ormat’s flow testing found no direct connection between the deep geothermal reservoir and shallower springs that he said feed the wetlands.
He also noted that Ormat recently reduced the plant’s proposed size from 60 megawatts to 12 megawatts, and that the company agreed to extensive real-time monitoring to ensure the wetlands aren’t affected. He said the monitoring would cost roughly $1.5 million a year during the geothermal facility’s operation, adding to a likely construction cost of around $60 million.
Federal officials, Thomsen said, failed to take those factors into account before protecting the Dixie Valley toad last year.
“We support the Endangered Species Act,” Thomsen said. “We want it to be implemented properly.”
An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on Ormat’s 60-day notice warning of a potential lawsuit.
But in its species assessment of the Dixie Valley toad, Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service cited research that it said showed the springs feeding Dixie Meadows “are not hydraulically isolated from the underlying geothermal reservoir.” As a result, the toad’s wetland habitat “can be impacted by production pumping and/or injection for the geothermal project,” the agency wrote.
Donnelly, meanwhile, pointed me to data showing that temperatures and water levels increased in one spot at Dixie Meadows after Ormat finished flow testing — a possible indication of underground hydraulic links that could put the toad at risk.
“The toads have this incredibly delicate relationship to temperature,” Donnelly said. “If you start cooling off those springs, they might all freeze to death. And if you start heating up those springs, they might all boil to death.”
Asked about the temperature and water level changes, Ormat’s senior legal counsel, Laura Jacobsen, told me via email that small amounts of data from a single spring are “far from sufficient to establish the flow test impacted the springs,” especially with temperature readings “within the variable baseline range for that spring.” The company also pointed me to a Bureau of Land Management document concluding that flow tests “indicate little to no observed changes in spring discharge conditions.”
I’ve been shining a light on similar battles across the region through The Times’ Repowering the West series. I’m now writing Part 3, dealing with solar sprawl in southern Nevada. Next month I’ll travel to Idaho to report Part 4, about why the red state’s dominant power company set a goal of 100% clean energy even when lawmakers haven’t ordered it to do so.
In the meantime, Dixie Meadows is far from the only geothermal conflict I’m tracking. Another project contemplated by Ormat could be built just outside Gerlach, a Nevada town best known as the gateway to the Burning Man art and music festival. Local residents and Burning Man leaders are fighting to block exploratory drilling, saying a geothermal plant could industrialize their rural outpost and scare off tourists. The San Francisco Standard’s Maryann Jones Thompson wrote about the controversy.
I was also struck by a recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey, funded in part by Ormat, finding that populations of greater sage-grouse — an iconic Western bird known for its mating dance, and a prime example of the extinction crisis — “declined substantially in years following the development of the geothermal energy plants” in Nevada, as the Geological Survey described the study. The agency has built a mapping tool that it says can help companies find low-impact spots to build geothermal plants.
“It’s great that they’ve developed a tool that can identify areas that are more or less sensitive,” Ormat’s Thomsen said.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s going to come down to: finding the best places to put renewable energy. It’s as true for small-footprint geothermal plants as it is for sprawling solar farms, vast fields of wind turbines and lengthy power lines.
A person could wonder if the first step in renewable energy buildout would have been to work with companies to identify sites with less potential for wildlife and Indigenous concerns. Rather than set targets, make assumptions, fund companies, and when they are far down the road, say “oops, not there.”
Seems like we might have done better by making sure top-down determinations of what should be done with renewable energy installations are actually viable in the real world.
9 thoughts on “Is Something Rare (Almost) Everywhere? Geothermal vs. Toads and the Search for Land for Renewables with Fewest (No?) Impacts”
Is something rare everywhere? No. Rare things no longer occur where we have already destroyed them.
When in doubt, the Services are required to err on the side of the species because there’s no recovery from extinction.
What if geothermal power let us dramatically reduce global GHG emissions from power generation? And bring power to places in the world that don’t have access to electricity? Would that be worth the risk to one or more rare species? This TED talk offers a look at the technology and potential: “Jamie C. Beard: The untapped energy source that could power the planet.”
The question of whether it “would be worth the risk to one or more (listed) species” is covered by ESA in the consultation process (not the listing process). The Endangered Species Committee (high level political appointees affectionately known as the “God Squad,” which has only been convened a couple of times) can be asked to exempt a project from the ESA requirements to protect the species.
This is a global issue. Do we mine the deep-sea nodules of metal that are needed for green energy — batteries, etc.? At the cost of harming species we don’t even know about yet? What will happen to these species if we don’t get a handle on climate change?
I completely agree that, “we might have done better by making sure top-down determinations of what should be done with renewable energy installations are actually viable” (i.e. planning for it), but that doesn’t excuse a business venture from doing its own feasibility investigation. Actually, I imagine they did, and where we they are now is one of the scenarios they looked at and decided is worth paying for.
Typically, in a “battle of the experts” over science, the agency should get deference from a court and win unless they were arbitrary and capricious in ignoring relevant factors. Studies by the regulated business could reasonably be discounted (were they peer-reviewed?).
I also hear a typical refrain from Ormat – “we’re using new technology,” “one example of effects actually occurring doesn’t prove anything.” It’s interesting to me that Ormat didn’t wait to actually complete the ESA consultation process on the project, which should provide more definitive information about the effects of this project on the toad. Maybe they thought that information would work against them?
Well, see, I think IF government thinks it’s a crisis, then it has a role to help industry that can solve the crisis. So far it looks like “helping” is shoveling large sums of $ to industry while keeping all the barriers intact. Kind of like putting more and more water behind a dam. And then blaming fossil folks for providing energy while all this is going on. I think the USG could do better by assisting.. mapping those good spots and helping discern where the best are.
But.. if there are not enough good spots to do what we have committed to do.. then maybe rethink our commitments. It seems like climate is characterized as an emergency when it comes to keeping fossils in the ground, but BAU when it comes to build out of alternatives.
Can you imagine if building the space program had been accomplished by floods of money to different companies to develop parts with no overall design for the spacecraft? You’d wonder if the goal were really to get to the moon, or to line the pockets of the associated companies.
Sharon, thanks for sharing this interesting article. I agree Sammy Roth’s writing is great!
But in this case I feel much is left unsaid.
Why are they suing over the Listing decision?? If they can show the Project will have No (Significant) Effect on the species then there is no NEPA concern. And if they can’t, they won’t be able to overturn the Listing.
I don’t understand the complexities of the legal case.. maybe someone out there does?
I had the same question above (but about ESA). I would like to think that the effects are the effects, and they should be fully investigated and disclosed whether the species is listed or not (under NEPA, if not ESA). Both the decision to list the species or not, and the decision to approve the project would then clearly not be “based on speculative future harm to the toad.” The question is what the benefit is to Ormat of keeping the species from being listed now. Maybe they see less work/less scrutiny, but the result should only be to postpone the listing decision if it is warranted.