BLM mulls massive Nev. project on eagle, desert tortoise concerns

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, March 19, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management is launching a detailed analysis of a massive proposed wind power project near the site of a contentious Obama-era project that a federal judge rejected two years ago due to “analytical gaps” in BLM’s evaluation.

The Crescent Peak Wind Project proposed to be built on 32,531 acres of public lands 10 miles west of Searchlight, Nev., on the California border would string together hundreds of wind turbines, more than 400 feet tall, in an area directly adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve and Castle Mountains National Monument and just west of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

If built, the project proposed by Crescent Peak Renewables LLC — a subsidiary of Sweden-based Eolus Vind AB — would have the capacity to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 175,000 homes and businesses.

BLM this week published in the Federal Register a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing the massive project. The notice kicked off a 90-day public comment period running through June 13.

The notice of intent also announces BLM will temporarily “segregate” the 32,000 acres at issue from new mining claims while the project is evaluated.

“The BLM strives to be a good neighbor in the communities we serve, and we look forward to receiving input from the public on this important proposal,” Tim Smith, manager of BLM’s Southern Nevada District, said in a statement.

But the massive project’s turbines would be visible from the Mojave National Preserve, critics say, and perhaps even the Lake Mead NRA, requiring BLM to amend the Las Vegas resource management plan to change the area’s “visual resource management” criteria.

There are also likely to be concerns about the project’s potential impacts to Mojave Desert tortoise and bighorn sheep habitat, as well as golden eagles.

The notice of intent acknowledges that BLM is preparing an EIS due “to the size and potential impacts of the Crescent Peak wind project.” The EIS will study the potential impacts to “biological resources, visual resources, cultural resources, tribal interests, recreation, and cumulative impacts.”

Environmental groups are already expressing grave concerns about the project, which is an Obama-era holdover originally proposed by Crescent Peak Renewables in November 2015.

Critics of the proposed project include Alan O’Neill, the former superintendent of Lake Mead NRA.

O’Neill told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week that the proposed project site “is absolutely the worst place to put a wind energy project.”

He added, “The Crescent Peak Wind Project is a terrible idea, one of the worst projects I have seen since I moved to Nevada in 1987. I just don’t get it. This is not even good from a wind perspective.”

Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of the Nevada-based group Basin and Range Watch, echoed O’Neill’s statement.

“This is a terrible project,” Emmerich told E&E News, noting the area “has one of the highest concentrations of golden eagle nests in Nevada.”

“Of all of the large-scale renewable energy projects we have followed in the last decade, this is one of the most poorly sited,” he added. “It would be a visual nightmare. The project would also be built in a rare desert grassland, as well as one of the most undisturbed Joshua tree forests in the Mojave Desert. The site provides habitat for desert bighorn sheep and the Gila monster.”

Controversial history

The Crescent Peak project is the second attempt in the past few years to build a major wind farm in the Searchlight area.

A federal judge two years ago threw out the Obama administration’s approval of the 200-MW Searchlight Wind Energy Project, which would have been the Silver State’s largest wind power project. Proposed for more than 9,300 acres of federal land about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas, the Searchlight Wind project would have generated enough electricity to power about 70,000 homes.

But U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Nevada issued a sharply worded order in October 2015 rejecting the final EIS conducted by BLM, as well as a biological opinion conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2015).

Du also rejected the record of decision formally approving the project in March 2013 that was signed by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Legal experts told E&E News that Du’s order marked the first time a court had formally ruled invalid a final EIS, biological opinion and ROD for a renewable energy project.

The order, based on a federal lawsuit filed by two groups — Basin and Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains — and three residents who lived near the proposed wind project site, ultimately led Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy to abandon the project.

Du, an appointee of President Obama, concluded in her order that “analytical gaps exist throughout the wildlife analyses underlying the ROD,” as well as the biological opinion and the final EIS.

Du directed that “FWS and BLM should, at a minimum, address gaps in the FEIS’s and [biological opinion’s] analyses of impacts to golden eagles and desert tortoises.”

The order likely would have required BLM to conduct a full supplement to the final EIS; FWS would have needed to issue a new biological opinion that addressed “the density of desert tortoises,” as well as “the adverse effects on desert tortoise habitat due to noise” during construction and operation of the wind farm.

BLM’s supplement to the final EIS would have needed to address the agency’s “conclusions about risks to bald eagles, protocols for golden eagle surveys, and risks to and mitigation measures for bat species,” Du wrote.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the project claimed that BLM significantly undercounted the number of golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site.

They also claimed that the federal agencies failed to properly analyze the full impacts of the project on wildlife and residents. The 87 proposed wind turbines would have been visible from the Lake Mead NRA to the east, as well as the town of Searchlight, where the plaintiffs say the light and noise from the turbines likely would have hurt property values and quality of life.