9th Circuit lifts 90-day ban at geothermal plant in Nevada

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal appeals court has lifted a temporary ban on construction of a geothermal power plant in Nevada opposed by a tribe and conservationists who say the site is sacred and home to a rare toad being considered for endangered species protection.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones in Reno had granted the 90-day injunction last month sought by opponents of Ormat Technologies’ Dixie Meadows project at the high-desert site bordering wetlands fed by hot springs east of Fallon.

A two-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a one-page ruling without explanation late Friday staying Jones’ injunction pending its full consideration of the appeal on the merits of the case.

It also granted the opponents’ request to expedite the review but indicated that wouldn’t be complete before April.

Ormat said in its appeal last month it might be forced to abandon the project if it couldn’t begin construction by Feb. 28 at the site about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Reno.

After that, Ormat said it would be impossible to complete construction and start selling power by a Dec. 31 deadline in a 2017 contract that made the project financially viable at rates above current market prices.

The geothermal plant, which taps underground water heated by the center of the earth, is one of three promising renewable energy projects in Nevada’s high desert being challenged in federal court because of potential impacts to rare species and/or culturally significant tribal lands. The two others are lithium mines proposed to produce raw materials for electric vehicle batteries.

Paul Thomsen, vice president of business development for the Reno-based Ormat, said the company “takes potential environmental impacts very seriously and works hard to ensure no significant impacts are created by our facilities.”

“We are grateful to the court for allowing construction to commence so Ormat can complete this important project and support the goal of reaching 100% carbon-free electricity,” he said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Monday.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center for Biological Diversity won the earlier court order temporarily banning any work on the project they say would turn a “unique, remote desert oasis into an industrial site.”

“While we’re confident that we will prevail when this case is heard on its merits, in the meantime it will be a very sad day when the bulldozers break ground on this project,” Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Great Basin director, said about the appellate court ruling.

The opponents said that in addition to causing irreparable harm to the culturally significant lands and the Dixie Valley toad, the project could end up costing ratepayers more for electricity.

“The public’s interest in protection of the natural environment and tribal sacred sites should not be burdened to accommodate Ormat’s bottom line,” their lawyers wrote last month in a counter-appeal.

“If considered at all, the public interest in affordable renewable power tips against rushing construction of this project to meet the (power agreement) which would force public ratepayers to purchase power at above-market prices,” they said.

The company said failure to begin construction in February would cost Ormat $68 million it already invested in the project as well as $30 million it would forgo under the 20-year, power production contract.

“The project itself — and all the public benefits that flow from replacing energy derived from fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy — is at stake, not just Ormat’s profits,” it said in court filings Jan. 26.

The opponents said the projected losses are speculative, “worst-case” scenarios.

“To be sure, the public has a substantial interest in the development of renewable energy generally, but Ormat fails to show the public interest favors construction of this particular project,” they said in court filings.

Ormat responded that it “cannot just choose another project location.”

“Like many other energy sources such as wind and solar, power must be developed where the resource exists,” it said.

Lawyers for the center and the tribe said the 2017 contract requires only that Ormat sell a certain amount of power by the end of the year from a combination of nine or more projects. They said Ormat is a worldwide leader in geothermal energy production with dozens of facilities worldwide.

The project “represents a small part of Ormat’s overall portfolio,” they said.