Bureau of Land Management Sued Over Handling of Ormat’s Geothermal Exploration Project

UPDATE 4/3/2023 – An amended complaint was filed in the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management by Burning Man Project and others regarding the handling of Ormat’s geothermal exploration project in Gerlach, Nevada. Several new co-plaintiffs have joined the suit: the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, the Gerlach Preservation Society, and local Gerlach residents and property owners Will Roger Peterson, Nanci Peterson, Stacey Black, Margie Reynolds, Jason Walters, and Dave Cooper. The amended complaint can be read in its entirety here.

Burning Man Project, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Friends of the Black Rock High Rock, land owner David Jamieson, and local official and Gerlach resident Andy Moore have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for their handling of a proposed geothermal exploration project in Gerlach, Nevada. The proposed project would permanently alter the viewshed, deplete the local springs and water supply, and fundamentally change the quality of life for Gerlach residents and visitors.

The lawsuit was filed on the grounds that BLM didn’t consider the full scope of effects and illegally segmented the project to avoid conducting a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The plaintiffs in this case and residents in Gerlach — a town of approximately 120 people — agree that BLM’s monitoring and mitigation conditions for the geothermal project are lacking, and that comments from a concerned public were ignored. The Finding of No Significant Impact was made without consideration of cumulative impacts or geographic context.

Even renewable energy projects must be studied and located in such a way as to minimize harm to the environment and the local community. This is an industrial project on the border of one of America’s pristine conservation areas, established for the purpose of preserving the view and natural environment.

BLM approved the drilling of thirteen 2.1-acre wells drilled to 1,500 to 7,500 feet spanning 2,742 acres in Gerlach, adjacent to the ecologically sensitive Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA). The co-plaintiffs have strong concerns about the adverse environmental, economic and social impacts of this project, and have asked BLM to conduct due diligence to ensure the region is not adversely affected. BLM completed a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement for the Burning Man event in 2019, a week-long Leave No Trace event. An EIS is needed under conditions where permanent infrastructure will be constructed in the area of a small town and unique national resource.

Gerlach is a small rural town of 120 people, known by residents and visitors alike for its quality of life, natural environment, remote location, and sweeping vistas. The region is also known for its dark skies, which, when unobstructed by light pollution from industrial activity, offer exceptional opportunities for stargazing and amateur astronomy. Gerlach is known as the “darkest town in the country” and part of only seven Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the entire world.

Gerlach resident and Gerlach-Empire Citizens Advisory Board member Andy Moore joined the lawsuit out of concern for the permanent effects to his town and the region he loves. “No one I know is against green power. What we are against is a company coming in, disregarding our public input, ignoring our questions, giving false statements, and damaging a community in order to fill their shareholders’ pockets while destroying our quiet nights, our property values, and our peace. There is no gain for this town, only loss from this project at our expense and way of life.”

In greenlighting the project, BLM dismissed the cultural and recreational value of the town of Gerlach and disregarded the detrimental economic impact that could occur if tourism falters from loss of the dark skies designation or depleting the local springs and water supply. BLM offered no solution to local concerns about a diminished quality of life during construction, or in the aftermath — whether the project is abandoned or a power generation facility is built. This lawsuit is a response to BLM’s deficient process. 

Earlier this week on January 11, over 70 Gerlach residents and guest speakers attended a public meeting to share thoughts and concerns about the potential short-term and long-term negative effects of Ormat’s proposed project. Concerns included potential erosion of the local watershed, incessant noise from construction and drilling, light pollution, habitat damage, and more. Community members expressed that their concerns have been ignored by BLM and Ormat for the past two years as Ormat has developed this project.

Gerlach residents and several of the lawsuit’s co-plaintiffs attend a community meeting on Wednesday, January 11, 2023 (Photo by Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley)

Friends of the Black Rock High Rock is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Gerlach whose mission is inspiring a legacy of public land stewardship through conservation and education. Executive Director Stacey Wittek said, “The potential impact to this region can’t be overstated. Gerlach depends on tourism, and tourists come here for the small town feel and abundant access to sustainable recreational and educational opportunities. Our organization supports renewable energy in Nevada, but even renewable energy projects need to be studied and located in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or ruin the local community.”

Gerlach is the gateway to the extraordinary 800,000-acre public lands of the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails NCA. These arid landscapes are home to sensitive species, hot springs, canyons, 120 miles of emigrant trails, historical wagon trails, and prehistoric Lake Lahontan, the expansive playa where the annual Black Rock City event takes place each year. Many groups work and recreate in this area year-round, including ranchers, rocketeers, artists, astronomers, hikers, and off-highway vehicle operators. Public lands and small towns are essential to the character of the American West, and we want to help protect the unique resources in this area of Northern Nevada

Environmental sustainability — including renewable energy — is one of Burning Man Project’s top priorities. Written in 2019, the 10-year Environmental Sustainability Roadmap has ambitious goals. We are taking our Gerlach operations and our BRC operations off of fossil fuels, as part of a long-term goal to make Black Rock City carbon negative. To get involved with Burning Man Project’s work related to the Ormat geothermal project or get information about sustainability and Burning Man, drop our Sustainability team a line at sustainability@burningman.org. 

You can read more about the proposed geothermal project — including our comments on the BLM Environmental Assessment — on BLM’s website, and in this series in the Burning Man Journal

(Photo by John Curley)

Cover image of Hwy 447 (Photo by Leori Gill)

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9 Comments on “Bureau of Land Management Sued Over Handling of Ormat’s Geothermal Exploration Project

  • Burning Man Project Communications says:

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  • Dan says:

    The Great Boiling Hot Springs
    which says Big Pool of Water is a location of Arcahic and Historical American History of Indigenous Peoples and the Settling the West… Does this alone deserve its protection..???..seems to me YES

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  • Robert Aughenbaugh says:

    This sounds like classic NIMBYism to me. The bottom line is, we need to be building renewable energy infrastructure as fast as we can. Everyone seems to want renewable energy, but now one wants it next to them. Eventually, it’s going to be next to all of us.

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    • Yer Mahm says:

      Yea and Verily. I’m not necessarily in favor of Ormat.. but I agree the NIMBY is STRONG with this topic. I kinda Respecc Rajneesh Puram… but just be face forward about it.

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  • Erythrite says:

    Ok, so Burning Man had “no comment” when a coal plant was going to be built in 2006 near Gerlach, but now has something to say.
    Could this be because BM bought land adjacent to some of the well sites?
    If you are against geothermal and lithium mining, then what are you for? What is your 5, 10, 20, 100 and 500 year plan?
    BTW – In 2019, BM gave Friends of the Black Rock 58k, which was about half their budget. I think FotBR sees the writing on the wall and needs to support a big donor.
    OTOH – Pushing back on Ormat is a good thing. Ameliorating light and sound pollution before the work occurs is a good thing. However, the time to do that is if and when Ormat decides to go to production. I’m left with the question of what is BM’s angle in this? They are spending ticket money for why? That said, the 72 or 74 days of the event also have a big effect.

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    • Yer Mahm says:

      BOOM! Good one! Link to coal plant please!?

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    • Yer Mahm says:

      I’m against the Lithium Mine at Thacker Pass. I could give you economic reasons.. but my main reason is that the place they want to put the mine is a place of significance to the Paiute and Shoshone people. I can put you in contact with Gary McKinnyy… a Headman of the Red Mountain People, if you would like to know more of the historic significiance.

      Lithium is relatively abundant on earth, and brine is a better way to derive it than strip mines.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    This development is a “disturbance in the force” – expectations, relationships, and visions – of the Gerlach Community and the Burning Man Community, neither requested or sought. Thus it is an opportunity too.

    It is an opportunity for both communities to learn more about energy, and actively plan their own energy future. Maybe some of the innovations planned, and yet to be planned, to make the work ranch and Fly Ranch energy independent, can be applied to Gerlach? And they can also be applied to the homes and towns of our worldwide Burner Community.

    This plant, if built, exports energy to an electrical substation on the big electrical grid around Fernley where it is sold into the California energy market, CAISO, via its Western EIM. California has an insatiable demand for electricity because of its cities, air conditioners, bright lights, and pumping water, another of its insatiable demands. By design, that energy market drives up local prices.

    Gerlach residents are not in a position to spend a lot of money on energy. So what does a low-cost energy-self sufficient Gerlach look like? Where are the generations of families for the school? Propane is expensive, and NV Energy electricity is not cheap. We have a base in Black Rock solar which can be expanded along with energy-efficient housing.

    If you choose, it is an opportunity to live in interesting times you did not choose.

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  • Yer Mahm says:

    “Environmental sustainability — including renewable energy — is one of Burning Man Project’s top priorities. ”

    I challenge this.

    I think this is NIMBY sentiment disguised as something else.

    Nothing about lighting a bunch of shit on fire in the desert is about ecological concerns,

    Quit faking.

    Geothermal energy is net gain.. your local sentiment is about your selfish desires.

    Deal with it.

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