Developer kills Obama-era project hobbled by greens’ lawsuit

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A renewable energy developer is pulling the plug on a Nevada wind project championed by former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada that would have been the Silver State’s largest wind farm.

Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy is walking away from the 200-megawatt Searchlight Wind Energy Project after environmental groups and some neighbors of the wind farm site filed a lawsuit challenging the venture that was approved in March 2013 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The Bureau of Land Management confirmed that Apex had removed towers that measured wind speeds at the southern Nevada site. And Apex said in an emailed statement to E&E News that the company is “no longer actively pursuing the project.”

“As we work on building one of the strongest portfolios of renewable projects in the nation, we continue to prioritize projects with the right balance of strong market interest, competitive wind resource, and local desire for economic development,” the company said. “While we believe the environmental concerns brought up in the BLM process could have been reasonably resolved, our assessment of these other fundamental qualities has encouraged us to focus on pursuing other opportunities.”

The decision is a startling fall for a project that Reid, who grew up in nearby Searchlight, Nev., publicly endorsed. And which Salazar, in signing a record of decision (ROD) approving it in 2013, hailed as a major advancement in the Obama administration’s efforts to promote the development of clean energy from renewable sources.

Proposed for more than 9,300 acres of federal land about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas, the Searchlight Wind project was to have generated enough electricity to power about 70,000 homes.

The project was among 60 large-scale wind, solar and geothermal power projects approved by the Obama administration since 2009. If all had been built, they would have the capacity to produce 15,500 MW, or enough to power more than 5 million homes.

But Interior’s approval of the project was challenged almost immediately.

Two groups — Basin and Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains — and three people who live near the project site in April 2013 filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada against BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Salazar (Greenwire, April 17, 2013).

They claimed the federal agencies failed to properly analyze the full impacts of the project on wildlife and residents. The 87 proposed wind turbines, as tall as 428 feet, would be visible from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the east, as well as Searchlight, where the plaintiffs say the light and noise from the turbines likely would hurt property values and quality of life.

The lawsuit resulted in U.S. District Judge Miranda Du issuing a scathing seven-page order that concluded BLM did not properly evaluate potential impacts to golden eagles and the Mojave Desert tortoise. She tossed out BLM’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) of the project (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2015).

Du, an Obama appointee, also invalidated the biological opinion prepared by FWS and the ROD signed by Salazar, writing that “analytical gaps exist throughout the wildlife analyses” underlying all three documents.

Du’s order likely would have required BLM to conduct a full supplement to the final environmental study that would have taken months to complete; FWS would need to issue a new biological opinion that addresses “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, according to Du’s order.

The Interior Department did not appeal Du’s order, but Apex Clean Energy filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The appeals court upheld Du’s order, concluding she merely remanded approval of the project back to BLM to address a host of deficiencies, and did not constitute a final decision that can be appealed (E&E News PM, Nov. 1, 2016).

In essence, the appeals court said BLM could still make the necessary changes to the final EIS and move the project forward, thereby granting Apex the relief it sought.

Greens hail project’s demise

Kirsten Cannon, a BLM spokeswoman in Las Vegas, said in an email that the company’s towers have been removed from the project site and the agency plans to inspect where the towers once stood to ensure “the land where they were is reclaimed.”

BLM will then work “with the applicant to close the [right-of-way] grant” awarded to the developers after Salazar signed the ROD. “We ask for a letter from the grant holder to relinquish the grant,” she said.

BLM will then close the case file and refund any money left in the monitoring cost recovery account, Cannon’s email said.

Cannon said BLM did not move to supplement the final EIS, pending Apex’s appeal to the 9th Circuit.

“They lost that appeal and have removed met towers from the granted area,” Cannon wrote in the email. “There will not be an action by BLM to amend the [final] EIS and [biological opinion] due to the applicant’s actions that indicate a relinquishment of the project.”

Supplementing the final EIS and preparing another biological opinion offered no guarantees the project would move forward, based on the problems that Du outlined in her order.

BLM’s supplement 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 claimed BLM significantly undercounted the number of golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site.

Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of the Basin and Range Watch group, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the project site, surrounded by the Piute-Eldorado Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern for Mojave Desert tortoise, is no place for an industrial-scale wind farm like Searchlight Wind.

“We applaud the Bureau of Land Management for finally putting an end to this ill-sited wind project,” Emmerich said in a statement.

“It is time for the BLM to manage this special location to protect the viewshed, wildlife, property values and cultural resources in a way that will bring tourist dollars to the region,” he added. “This is no place for industrial scale energy.”