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Nevada geothermal plant project stalled amid bid to save endangered Dixie Valley toad

Conservationists say the geothermal project could drain or cool the hot spring the toad requires to thrive.

(CN) — Conservationists often champion renewable energy projects, since they're a cleaner alternative to pillaging Earth for fossil fuels. That is, unless the projects imperil already endangered species like Nevada's rare Dixie Valley toad — a species that thrived hidden from human eyes but was already threatened when scientists first described it in 2017.

At that time, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Trump administration to list the toad as threatened or endangered. Fast forward four years, and the nonprofit sued the Biden administration to stop the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project.

The project first came to a halt this past January, when Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones sided with the center and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, which holds the land on which the project is to be built as sacred. The Ninth Circuit stayed the ruling a few weeks later.

But on Monday, construction of the geothermal project in central Nevada was halted yet again, this time through an agreement between the center and project developer Ormat Technologies. Under the agreement, Ormat agrees to consider existential risks to the Dixie Valley toad.

Had the project moved forward, it would have provided carbon-free energy to the Dixie Valley through two geothermal powerplants, over 18 geothermal wells, access roads and 48 miles of transmission lines over 2,000 acres of public land according to Nevada Current. But while the project aligns with Nevada’s goal to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, the energy is, apparently, not as clean as it seems.

Building Ormat’s power plants also means utilizing the same geothermal fluid that heats the Dixie Meadows Hot Springs, an area vital to the toad's survival.

Previous geothermal projects have dried up nearby water surfaces or caused them to cool down, which happened with Ormat’s geothermal project in Pershing County, Nevada. As reported by the Nevada Current, water flow from the Jersey Valley Hot Spring declined after commercial power production from the McGinnis Hills plant began in 2012.

But on top of declining water levels, changes in water temperature would also negatively affect the toad’s habitat during the winter, shorten its breeding season and harm the development of eggs and tadpoles.

According to the center’s announcement, both the government and scientists agree the project could drive the Dixie Valley toad to extinction.

“I’m thrilled that yet again the bulldozers are grinding to a halt as a result of our legal actions,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the center. “Nearly every scientist who has evaluated this project agrees that it puts the Dixie Valley toad in the crosshairs of extinction. This agreement gives the toad a fighting shot.”

This past April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invoked its authority under the Endangered Species act to list the Dixie Valley toad as endangered for 240 days. Monday's agreement pauses construction of Ormat’s power plants until the service issues a biological opinion or until Dec. 31 — whichever comes first.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe’s initial religious concerns, however, are still to be determined. “The tribe's religious concerns are still being litigated in the case at district court,” Donnely said in an email.

The U.S. Department of Interior is also a party to the agreement. Ormat Nevada Inc., is represented by attorneys of Holland and Hart LLP. The company did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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