Nevada court fights raise warning flags over green energy push

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Opposition from friends, not foes, is creating potential obstacles to President Joe Biden’s green energy agenda on federal lands in the western swing state of Nevada.

Two lithium mines and a geothermal power plant under construction in the largest gold-mining US state are under attack from conservationists, tribesmen and others who generally support Biden’s efforts to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy .

The disputes highlight an emerging reality as the Biden administration tries to meet its goal of running the U.S. electric grid on clean energy by 2035.

Renewable or not, actual resource mining faces many of the same regulatory and environmental hurdles the government has faced for decades when mining coal or drilling for oil.

Whether harnessing hot underground water to generate electricity with steam turbines or mining lithium to make batteries for electric cars, operations must always comply with laws designed to protect wildlife habitat, cultural and historical values, and guarding against pollution or other degradation of federal property. lands.

In a recent failed attempt to revoke a Nevada water permit for a mine near the Oregon line above the nation’s largest known lithium deposit, opponents raised some of the same concerns voiced four decades ago about some of the biggest gold mines in the world.

Specifically, the Great Basin Resource Watch and others say the lithium mine will produce toxic waste. More generally, they still accuse regulators of approving industry plans without a thorough review of potential harms.

“Everything seems to be in the hands of the mining company,” said Sarah Wochele, mining justice organizer for Nevada’s Progressive Leadership Alliance, during last month’s appeal hearing. “And we just ignorantly praise new technology, new technology.”

Increasing domestic lithium production is key to Biden’s plan for a greener future, a critical component for electric vehicle batteries. Global demand for the lightest metal on Earth is expected to increase sixfold by 2030 compared to 2020.

The large deposit bordering Oregon where Lithium Nevada plans to begin construction in December is “vital to our national security and our country’s lithium needs to support green energy development and meet climate change goals. “, the company said in recent court documents.

But in addition to concerns about toxic waste, the mine sits on federal land that local tribes say is a sacred site where dozens of their ancestors were slaughtered by U.S. cavalry in 1865.

Another large lithium mine still on the drawing board, halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, is home to a rare desert wildflower that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, the geothermal power plant faces both cultural and environmental challenges in a case pending before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The San Francisco-based appeals court could rule any day on a lawsuit seeking to halt development at a high desert oasis 100 miles east of Reno where a rare toad currently protected under law on endangered species lives in the same hot springs that Native Americans have revered for thousands of years.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved the Ormat Nevada geothermal project last November over objections from another interior agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since then, the USFWS has taken the rare step of declaring the Dixie Valley toad endangered on a temporary emergency basis – something it has done just one other time in 20 years. .

This month, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe amended their lawsuit against the Reno-based Ormat and Bureau of Land Management in U.S. District Court in Reno to include the list of april.

The updated version alleges the two are in violation of the Endangered Species Act because they failed to halt construction “despite the USFWS’ unambiguous conclusion that the project poses an imminent and existential risk to the Dixie Valley Toad.”

The government has not yet responded, but the case is continuing in the district court alongside the appeals court. And ongoing legal battles underscore the difficulty of realizing Biden’s vision of a cleaner energy future.

Administration officials insist they knew all along that implementing their plans to slow the Earth’s warming would not be easy.

“Catalysing the clean energy economy and bringing renewable energy projects to fruition is no small task,” said Tyler Cherry, press secretary for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

“Indeed, these are complex, large-scale projects that require a robust public process,” he wrote in a July 12 email to the AP in response to a request for comment.

The three-judge 9th Circuit panel that heard oral argument in the geothermal case in June said it could not consider listing the toad in April because it came after the appeal was filed in January.

But the judges acknowledged that the USFWS had raised similar objections in previous opinions, warning of the likelihood that geothermal plant operations could push the toad to the brink of extinction.

Justice Department attorney representing the bureau, Michelle Melton, said federal law requires the bureau to consider USFWS criticism, but it is not bound by it.

The toad’s emergency listing does not change the office’s position that the project will have no significant impact on the tribe or the toad, she said.

“Fish and Wildlife has a different opinion,” Melton said. “It was no surprise to BLM that Fish and Wildlife felt this.”

Ormat Vice President Paul Thomsen said the emergency listing overestimates the project’s potential impact on the toad, in part because it makes false assumptions about underground faults in the geothermal reservoir that he intends to exploit.

“There are enough safeguards in place to avoid endangering the toad,” he wrote June 6 in comments to the USFWS.

The 9th Circuit judges appeared sympathetic last month to some of the opponents’ arguments. But they noted the lower court judge weighed the pros and cons and determined the public was best served by allowing the temporary injunction blocking construction to expire 90 days after it was issued in February.

They pointed to Judge Robert C. Jones’ conclusion that electricity generated at the geothermal plant would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to other power generation facilities and that “depriving the public of ‘a carbon-free source of electricity’ is not in the public interest. higher interest.

Scott Lake, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the benefits of renewable energy resources are “something the tribe and the center actually agree on.”

“But nothing in the record establishes a public interest or compelling need for this particular project…on a tribal sacred site and in a way that threatens the entire existence of the Dixie Valley Toad,” he said. -he declares.

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