Burning Man cheers Washoe overturning geothermal permit

Washoe County commissioners have rescinded an energy company's permit to drill exploratory wells for a geothermal project in the desert near the site of the annual Burning Man counterculture festival north of Reno.

Officials for the Burning Man organization and others who have filed suit in U.S. District Court to block Ormat Technologies' exploration in the Black Rock Desert say the move puts the project on hold indefinitely and could scuttle it all together.

The Washoe County Commission voted 3-2 on April 11 to overturn the permit that the county's Board of Adjustment approved in January to allow for the drilling of up to 13 geothermal test wells in the area near Gerlach.

Opponents of the project say it could jeopardize the town's water supply and detract from the remote area's natural beauty.

"Gerlach's very existence is threatened by the Ormat geothermal development," Allen Nash, vice president of the Gerlach Volunteer Fire Department and member of a county citizens advisory board, told the commission before the vote.

The project ''runs the risk of changing a spectacular mountain vista into a spectacular vista of an industrial plant," said Seth Schrenzel, a local business owner and trustee for the Gerlach General Improvement District.

The nonprofit Burning Man Project based in San Francisco said in a statement that the commission's decision delays the project "for a substantial period of time and could result in it never moving forward."

"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 we call home," said Marnee Benson, the organization's director of government affairs.

Ormat Technologies didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Reno-based company is already involved in a lengthy federal court battle over a geothermal power plant it wants to build about 100 miles east of Reno adjacent to wetlands where an endangered toad lives and are fed by hot springs that tribal leaders say are sacred.

In the desert north of Reno, Ormat initially proposed a pair of geothermal power plants with overhead power lines and several miles of pipelines but withdrew that proposal in 2020 and replaced it with a smaller exploratory project to determine whether such development was commercially feasible.

The Bureau of Land Management approved the exploratory project with the test wells last October. All exploration wells and equipment would be placed on BLM-managed land.

Ormat said in court filings in March in response to the opponents' lawsuit that the exploratory project "does not include – and the (BLM's) decision does not approve – construction of a power plant or development of electric transmission lines."

"Ormat would seek BLM permission for further development if, and only if, the project proves the commercial viability of the geothermal resources,'' it said.

But the opponents' lawsuit accuses Ormat of attempting to evade analysis of the geothermal power plants' potential negative effects on the environment by segmenting the project, which limits BLM's review to only the exploratory stage of its plans.

"This first stage merely confirms where the resources are located to inform future industrial scale geothermal energy development," the lawsuit said. "Once the exploration project begins, it will be impossible to stop the effects of the entire geothermal production project."

Local residents joined the Burning Man Project in January in appealing the permit. They argue that the timing of the public notice of a meeting to gather community input just after the Christmas holidays prevented anyone from attending. They also said the proposed project fails to comply with the county's "High Desert Area Plan" intended to protect scenic vistas and natural resources.

Clara Andriola, the commission's newest member who was appointed early in April by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo to fill a vacancy, joined Commissioners Jeanne Herman and Mike Clark in voting to rescind the permit, according to the Reno Gazette Journal, which first reported the decision.

Chairwoman Alexis Hill and Commissioner Mariluz Garcia voted in support of the permit.


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