Geothermal plant wins appeal but pauses Nevada construction

Shown is the Ormat construction site for the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project, with Dixie Meadows and the toad habitat visible in the background in Churchill County, Nev., June 28, 2022. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

RENO, Nev. — The developer of a geothermal power plant facing legal challenges in Nevada agreed Monday to suspend construction just hours after a U.S. appeals court had refused to halt the project that opponents say would harm an endangered toad and destroy sacred hot springs.

In a ruling Monday morning, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bid by environmentalists and a Nevada tribe to reinstate an injunction that temporarily blocked work earlier this year on Ormat Nevada’s plant 100 miles east of Reno.


But hours later, lawyers for Ormat, the government, environmentalists and the tribe filed a joint stipulation in federal court in Reno detailing a voluntary agreement to suspend construction for at least 30 days — and perhaps until the end of the year.

The unusual turn of events comes after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the rare step of declaring the Dixie Valley toad endangered on a temporary emergency basis in April — something the agency has done only one other time in 20 years.

The project is one of several underway in the West that the Biden administration backs as a way to combat climate change by expediting the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

It would generate carbon-free power by tapping hot water from beneath the earth. But the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in April it could lead to the extinction of the toad by adversely affecting groundwater that feeds wetlands in the only place the speckled toad, about the size of a quarter, is known to exist.

Monday’s panel ruling from the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, which heard oral arguments on the appeal in June, said it couldn’t consider the emergency listing because it happened after the appeal was filed in January.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe subsequently amended their suit to include the listing. They allege Ormat and the bureau are violating the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that they consult with the wildlife service before proceeding with any activity that could harm protected species.

The conflict has put a spotlight on some of the challenges the Biden administration faces as it tries to meet its goal of having the U.S. power grid run on clean energy by 2035.

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