Washoe County Halts Ormat’s Geothermal Project in Gerlach, Nevada

This press release was sent to the media on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, and we wanted to share this important news with the community. To learn more about the proposed geothermal project in Gerlach, read these prior posts.


Washoe County Halts Ormat’s Geothermal Project in Gerlach, Nevada

Local residents make their voices heard; County officials vote to deny crucial administrative permit

RENO, NEVADA — In a 3-2 vote Tuesday evening, and a major victory for a small, rural community in Northern Nevada, the Washoe County Board of County Commissioners denied Ormat Technologies Inc.’s permit for a geothermal project in Gerlach. Concerned Gerlach citizens and co-plaintiffs in a related lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management made compelling statements during the public hearing in support of Burning Man Project’s appeal, decisively turning the tide against Ormat’s utility scale energy project.

The County’s decision is final. Ormat may seek to appeal this decision in the courts or take some other legal action, but yesterday’s decision delays the project for a substantial period of time and could result in it never moving forward.

“Gerlach residents have been asking smart questions about this project for two years,” Burning Man Project’s Director of Government Affairs Marnee Benson said after the hearing. “They are worried about their water supply and way of life. Today their concerns were heard. This community stood up and made a difference. Burning Man is pleased to have played a role in protecting the town and this special wilderness area we call home.”

On January 5, 2023, the Washoe County Board of Adjustment approved a permit for Ormat to construct and drill up to 13 geothermal test wells in the Gerlach area. In addition to a federal permit from the BLM, Ormat needs approval from Washoe County to proceed with its exploratory wells. Gerlach residents Tina Walters and Andy Moore joined Burning Man Project in appealing the permit on January 17, 2023, arguing sufficient notice was not provided to community residents and its Citizen Advisory Board, which therefore limited public participation. In fact, not a single member of the public attended that permit hearing due to the timing of the notice and meeting directly before and after the holidays. The appeal also argued that ultimately the permit should have been denied because the proposed project fails to protect scenic vistas and natural resources as specified in Washoe County’s “High Desert Area Plan.” 

Team photo after the Washoe County Commissioners denied Ormat’s administrative permit for the proposed geothermal project in Gerlach, April 2023 (Photo courtesy of Burning Man Project)

At Tuesday’s hearing, Gerlach residents packed the room and spoke eloquently about the potential impacts of Ormat’s project on the town’s water supply, the structural integrity of their homes, and nearby natural hot springs. Residents expressed growing concern about noise and light pollution from the geothermal project, increased traffic, and irreversible impacts to the serenity and solitude of their remote high desert town. The County Commissioners noted the power and effect of the residents’ statements. (This direct quote and others included here were spoken during the public comment period, and have been condensed for clarity.)

 “Gerlach’s very existence is threatened by the Ormat geothermal development,” Allen Nash, Gerlach resident, District 5 Citizens Advisory Board member, and Vice President of the Gerlach Volunteer Fire Department said at the hearing. “The proposed drill sites are down the hill from where the Gerlach Spring is, and where Gerlach gets its water. Ormat’s proposal is to drill holes below that spring. They haven’t done enough research to prove the proposed exploration would not risk Gerlach’s water supply. I personally asked a BLM representative what measures were in place to provide the town with water if the supply is reduced or eliminated. His response was: ‘none.’ Water is everything in the desert, and I fear that if this exploration goes forward without more research, the town could become the latest addition to the growing list of Nevada ghost towns.” 

Gerlach resident AJ Pizzo also spoke at Tuesday’s hearing: “We have learned that projects such as this have a long track record of drying out hot springs and causing groundwater subsidence, which has the very real possibility of sinking our homes and sinking our community. Ormat is moving forward without an Environmental Impact Statement, a document that would extensively study the effects of their project and ultimately on our community. It became clear to us as a community that what Ormat calls ‘exploratory drilling’ is in fact the first phase of a multi-phase process which leads directly to the construction of an [industrial] geothermal plant, possibly multiple. No company spends over $1 million per drill site without knowing they will move to the next phase. Both Ormat and BLM [have] repeatedly ignored our very real concerns and not provided our community with a guarantee that our investments will survive their exploratory project, and now our entire community is existing in a palpable state of impending doom.” 

“The Ormat geothermal project runs the risk of changing a spectacular mountain vista into a spectacular vista of an industrial plant,” Seth Schrenzel, Gerlach General 

Improvement District trustee and local business owner, said. “There has been an indication from Ormat about the creation of local jobs, but in local meetings, it was discussed that most jobs would be remote and that if any jobs were created locally, it is unlikely that anyone from Gerlach would have the qualifications required to hold these positions. I’ve heard no proposal for an improvement of our municipal water system. In the end, Gerlach shoulders the risk but realizes no benefits. This is a real threat to our homes, to our livelihood, and to the nature of our part of the country.” 

He later added, “I am, like most people, not against geothermal. What I am against is that, as soon as the conversation got a little bit difficult, Ormat simply stopped participating with my community. Essentially, they ghosted us. I think that the outcome we saw yesterday at the County Commissioners meeting is a rebuke of their failure to continue to participate with the community that they will affect most.

“I think the proposed project is not consistent with the High Desert Plan,” Dave Cooper, Gerlach resident and retired BLM Black Rock National Conservation Area Manager said. “It has the potential to change the very character of Gerlach and the surrounding area from rural to permanent industrial zone. If fully developed, this project may be larger than the town, will dominate the landscape, and cause significant long-term adverse impacts to the quality of life and property in our community. These public lands are used for recreation as well as wildlife habitat, and will be off limits when the fences and the no trespassing signs go up. The only way to mitigate the significant adverse impacts to the character of the community, the very sense of place that is Gerlach, is to move the development away from the community and adjacent private properties so it is out of sight and sound of the community. BLM never considered an alternative like this. I have written numerous environmental assessments and EISs over 30-some years with the BLM, and this environmental assessment is flawed.” 

Click here to watch the Board of County Commissioners meeting (Burning Man/Ormat portion begins at 6:15:35):

Previously published background information:

In January, Burning Man Project filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The complaint 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 agree that BLM’s monitoring and mitigation conditions for the geothermal project are lacking, and that comments from a concerned public were ignored. The complaint is still pending, and Burning Man Project intends to proceed with this challenge to federal authorization of the project unless Ormat relocates the project so as to not impact the Gerlach area. Co-plaintiffs on the suit include Friends of the Black Rock High Rock, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, The Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, the Gerlach Preservation Society, and local residents David Jamieson, Andy Moore, Will Roger Peterson, Nanci Peterson, Stacey Black, Margie Reynolds, Jason Walters, and Dave Cooper. 

The Ormat geothermal exploration proposal included construction of up to 13 geothermal drilling wells and well pads, 2.8 miles of new and bigger access roads, and associated facilities. If adequate geothermal resources are confirmed, this would be the first phase of a much larger project that would include a geothermal production facility that abuts the town of Gerlach and would transform this unique and peaceful rural environment into a noisy and light-filled industrial zone.

The scenic town of Gerlach has a population of 120-130 and is the gateway to the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Gerlach is a well-known astro tourism destination, attracting visitors from outside the region. Visitors come year-round for outdoor recreation and each summer for the Burning Man event. The potential dark sky effects of this project could impact an invaluable natural resource of this portion of Nevada, the darkest skies in the contiguous United States. Burning Man Project is a substantial presence in and around Gerlach, with over 20 year-round employees living and working nearby and ownership of multiple properties. 

For additional info about the geothermal project and its potential impacts on Gerlach, see these links:

Cover image of a double rainbow over the town of Gerlach, Nevada, 2022 (Photo by Daniel Fingerhut)

About the author: Burning Man Project

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7 Comments on “Washoe County Halts Ormat’s Geothermal Project in Gerlach, Nevada

  • Rosalie says:

    Congratulations! Great work, team!

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  • Well articulated concerns indeed. The water table is critical, and the lack of research in that area is concerning. I read the 2022 EIS which mentioned 19 drill sites, each having pools 200’ x 300’ in size. Also, I didn’t see any considerations for evaporation, the minerals left behind, and the resulting airborne dust (ie, the previously concentrated particulates from the last ice age, brought to the surface again).

    Given that geothermal is all over this region, I would venture to guess that the only reason to put it on the edge of town would be for convenience sake. And they ghosted the requests for comment? I guess Ormat doesn’t care enough.

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  • some seeing eye says:

    Many people worked together. They testified, they did research, they submitted public comments in the BLM public involvement cycle, they wrote, blogged, posted on social networks, and talked about it in person. A community came together.

    As the article notes, there is still work in progress, likely for a long time.

    The community that came together is a powerful force to shape the future of Gerlach and the land around it, ongoing.

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  • Magnum says:

    A familiar sentiment..

    We need more affordable housing! (Just not in my city)

    We need more prisons! (Just not in my town)

    We need more homeless shelters! (Just not in my neighborhood)

    We need more sources of renewable energy! (Just not here)

    Where then?

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    • Mansoon says:

      Yep! “Nevada has millions of acres of land with only rocks, scrubbrush and lots and lots of sun! Sure, plenty of places in Gerlach already use solar, no problem. But let’s not use THAT for people far away; let’s break safety rules that keep people from being poisoned and their buildings sinking, with the only water supply around in the desert, for no local benefit and harm that can never be taken away! Did we mention ruining the local hot springs that brings tourism or the lesson of nearby Fly Ranch (where there’s a couple of holes drilled by a geothermal company that never could be closed)? Let’s do more of THAT!”

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  • Lolly says:

    here’s hoping this is a permanent solution, and that Ormat won’t just pay off a senator or governor to circumvent the ruling

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  • Robert Selwood says:

    It’s so disappointing that this veiled dispute between one big corporation and another is being trussed up as a local’s fight. Burning Man’s nimbyism is so antithetic to Nevada’s ethos, and to their own need to go green. Don’t California my Desert!

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