Before the holidays, we informed you about Ormat Technology’s proposed geothermal exploration project in Gerlach, Nevada, and the potential impacts of such a project in the tranquil desert town that serves at the gateway to the Black Rock Desert – High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA).
The Bureau of Land Management is conducting an Environmental Assessment and soliciting feedback from the public to determine whether Ormat can proceed with their plan. Any member of the public can participate in this important federal process – this means you! We invite the Burning Man community to join us in submitting substantive comments about this project to BLM. The deadline is MONDAY, JANUARY 10th. Read our earlier post on how to submit an effective, substantive comment.
Burning Man Project strongly supports renewable energy development and has published a 10-year environmental sustainability roadmap that includes our goal of becoming carbon negative, but the proposed siting of Ormat’s geothermal facility is causing tremendous concern. We are requesting that BLM prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and carefully consider the known and likely impacts to the land, people, animals, and natural resources.
A geothermal facility so close to Gerlach and the NCA would forever alter the environment, viewshed, and quality of life in the area. See photos of other Ormat sites on their Global Projects page. Before BLM grants permission for this exploration project, the impacts must be understood and satisfactorily mitigated. How will residents of Gerlach live with the noise and light pollution? What will happen to water quality and the water table (see Sec 4.7 of the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Geothermal Leasing in the Western United States)? What if the local springs dry up? Who gets the power from this facility once it is built? How will tourism be impacted?
We reported in our December post that Ormat wants to build 21 wells at 2.1 acres each, drilled to 1,500 feet deep and spanning 2,742 acres near the Y in Gerlach at the intersection of Highway 447 and Route 34. One of our readers pointed out that the proposal includes wells at 7,000 foot depth (p.4 of the Operation Plan) and may “utilize directional boring (horizontal) and will incorporate reinjection of fluids possibly with Fracking intention.” Even though Ormat has characterized this phase of development as “exploration,” it would have lasting impacts whether they proceed with the generation phase or not.
We’ve done some additional research and found resources that help explain the concerns associated with this type of project.
- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory acknowledges that an exploratory drilling project such as this may require an EIS: Geothermal Permitting and NEPA Timelines at p. 896.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has voiced concerns regarding impacts to springs and habitat from geothermal development projects in Nevada and the eastern Sierras.
- Recently, the U.S. District Court for the State of Nevada issued a 90-day pause on construction of an Ormat geothermal plant in Dixie Meadows. While the purpose of the pause is to address potential impacts to endangered species and cultural resources, the court “expressed concern over what [it] said was a lack of a typical environmental impact study and proposed mitigation measures to address possible impacts to Dixie Meadows as a result of the geothermal energy project, including its potential to dry up the spring.”
A number of widely-cited papers have outlined the risks and problems associated with geothermal power, which underscore our view that an EIS needs to be completed:
- Geothermal projects can negatively impact the well-being and health of people, the ecosystem, and the bioregion.
- There are risks of trace elements and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Water in the area and the broader basin could be impacted by reinjection, fluid withdrawal, brine, and surface water contamination.
- A geothermal development would likely create light, air, and noise pollution at the entrance to the National Conservation Area.
- In some cases geothermal projects create problems with non-native species, heat effects, and discharge of other chemicals.
- The future plant could create hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions.
We know that geothermal energy is very complex and there is much to understand, but we are bringing you what we know and looking forward to learning more. As noted above, we are in favor of renewable power. Geothermal and solar power are the focus of a few winners of the Fly Ranch design challenge: Coyote Mountain, SEED, and Solar Mountain. As we’ve considered these projects and other developments in Gerlach, we’ve engaged local stakeholders, scientists, and experts, studied the land, and intend to carefully mitigate impacts. In Nevada there is a well-documented history of hot springs drying up due to geothermal projects at Jersey Valley hot springs and Dixie Meadows.
If you drive to Black Rock City, recreate in the Black Rock Desert, or visit the National Conservation Area, you go through Gerlach, the quaint little town at the end of the grid and the beginning of the wilderness. It’s truly one of the last outposts of small-town community living. An industrial geothermal facility less than a mile away would change the character of Gerlach forever. Small towns like Gerlach are disappearing all over the country, and in order to retain this spirit, measures must be taken to ensure folks in these areas can continue to live harmoniously in their chosen environment.
BLM should hold Ormat to at least the same standard they apply to our annual, one-week Leave-No-Trace event. We would like Ormat to consider the broader ecosystem, stakeholders, and impacts their projects could have. We would like Ormat and BLM to hear from Numu and Newe (Western Shoshone) Tribes, and others whose land we visit with concerns or experience with neighboring geothermal development.
Thank you, Burning Man community, for always helping us to level up. You can track this Ormat project and read the documentation on BLM’s ePlanning website.