The Stupid Burns at Burning Man

January 11, 2023

Above, traffic jam at last year’s Burning Man festival.

Nevada Current:

Burning Man is suing the Bureau of Land Management over its approval of a geothermal exploration project in Gerlach, Nevada.

In a filing Monday, the Burning Man Project—the nonprofit behind the festival —argues the agency failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it ruled in October that the exploration project would have “no significant impact,” meaning it doesn’t require a more rigorous environmental review.

The Gerlach Geothermal Exploration Project proposed by Ormat would be located less than one mile north of Gerlach, Nevada — a gateway town to the event that attracts a temporary city of 80,000 people annually. The town typically holds a population of 120.

Ormat previously proposed a geothermal development project in the same location, but has since withdrawn its development plan and submitted an exploration plan instead.

After analysis of the project site, BLM approved drilling by Ormat of up to 13 exploratory wells and construction of about 2 miles of new access roads and associated facilities across about 5 miles of public land. The exploration project would be the first portion of a potential future large-scale geothermal development project.

Opponents of the exploration project— including Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Friends of the Black Rock High Rock, and a local land owner and resident — fear the project would permanently degrade vital hot springs directly adjacent to the project site.

“After participating in the public process and seeing no movement on our concerns, we filed this lawsuit to help ensure the impacts from the proposed project are minimized, and that Ormat is a good corporate citizen in this environmentally sensitive, economically vulnerable area of Northern Nevada,” said Burning Man Project’s General Counsel Adam Belsky.

In an October letter of decision sent to interested parties, the BLM said they are requiring additional hydrological monitoring before, during, and after drilling in response to analyses and public concern during the project comment period.

Residents and landowners believe the exploration project will directly impact their property interests by laying “the foundation for turning a unique, virtually pristine ecosystem of environmental, historical, and cultural significance into an industrial zone.”

Gerlach resident and Gerlach-Empire Citizens Advisory Board member Andy Moore joined the lawsuit out of concern for the permanent effects to the town.

“No one I know is against green power. What we are against is a company coming in, disregarding our public input, ignoring our questions, giving false statements, and damaging a community in order to fill their shareholders pockets while destroying our quiet nights, our property values, and our peace. There is no gain for this town, only loss from this project at our expense and way of life,” Moore said.

Paul Thompson, vice president of business development for Ormat, said the developer has reviewed the complaint and believes the lawsuit has no merit.

“Consistent with the law and the realities of geothermal development, Ormat undertook government review of its exploration project in advance of pursuing any development,” Thompson said. “Ormat is evaluating whether to intervene in the action, and looks forward to prevailing in the lawsuit and continuing its contribution to Nevada’s green energy, zero emissions future, which will offset some of the copious amounts of fossil fuels the Burning Man Project annually emits in the Black Rock Desert.”

Opponents of the exploration project pointed to a recent lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe to halt another Ormat geothermal energy project near a spring home to a rare Nevada toad. In that case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the planned geothermal development project would likely alter or dry up adjacent thermal spring systems.

Executive Director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness Shaaron Netherton argues the project would “forever alter this region’s amazing viewshed.”

This isn’t the first time Burning Man has gotten tangled in a legal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. In December 2019, Burning Man sued the BLM over its special recreation permit fee, arguing the bureau has been overcharging it for years. And in 2020, event organizers sued the agency to keep financial information about its event private.

The Burning Man Project has planned, managed, and built Burning Man annually on the dry lake of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada since 1990. 

The company coordinates the year-round, behind-the-scenes work needed to build the temporary metropolis near the Black Rock Desert High Rock. Burning Man Project also owns a number of property parcels in the area and has over 20 regular full-time, year-round employees living and working in the Gerlach region. 

“We know this region, it’s our home base,” said Burning Man Project’s Director of Government Affairs Marnee Benson. “Our interest goes beyond the large-scale event we bring here. We’re deeply invested in the community and in creating long-term opportunities for economic development.”

This article was updated with a comment from Ormat’s Vice President of Business Development, Paul Thompson.

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11 Responses to “The Stupid Burns at Burning Man”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I refer to Burning Man as Giant Carbon Release Festival.

    BTW, for the aesthetics, the problem with a power plant out there would be the power lines (unless they are buried). People will protest “eyesores” that don’t actually harm the natural environment.

    • Mark Mev Says:

      Why don’t they bury the power lines, offer free or very cheap power to the city area residents, free or cheap power to burning man for their festival in the middle of the desert, and minimize some of the complaints. Just share some of the profits.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        They can donate some carbon credits to compensate for much of the gratuitous emissions from Burning Man.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        because burying the power lines makes the power uneconomical. “Free or cheap power” to locals ignores the reality of how electricity is distributed on the grid.
        Do we then say that everyone that lives within a certain radius of power plants gets a rate cut? What about people that get coal pollution even a hundred miles away? Not workable.

        • Mark Mev Says:

          Not workable, but in business sometimes you have to pay some people in a different way to get something built. I started out going down that path. Concluded my first deal, shook hands, and felt the slime climb from my hand up my arm and into my body. I immediately jumped from that path and never looked back. But, that was how business was done when you move up the food chain. Maybe it is different now, but humans haven’t seemed to progressed that far in my opinion.

    • John Oneill Says:

      Geothermal can have other environmental consequences. New Zealand gets about 20% of its power from North Island geothermal plants, but the first, Wairakei, not only pulled the plug on all ~75 geysers in the nearby tourist area, it also polluted the island’s largest river with arsenic, till recently above drinking water standards, all the way to the sea. That plant has been losing power gradually over the last decade or so, despite addition of a secondary turbine, and is due to close in a decade, after about 60 years’ service ( though other plants using the same field will continue.)
      One could compare this to the two concentrating solar ‘power tower’ plants in the western US, which were also criticised for their effects on pristine wilderness. The main difference would be that the solar field’s footprint is much larger, that the boilers use large quantities of natural gas for preheating, and that the CSP plants only have a capacity factor of around 24% (they have no storage) compared to over 80% for geothermal.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        The NZ plant sounds like an old open-loop design. Do they still build new ones like that?

        • John Oneill Says:

          New ones are much better – still have a higher CO2 emission than other renewables (except maybe solar). Other hand, they work all the time, so you’re not turning fossil plants on and off. Other other hand, not many places are as ‘thin skinned’ as our Volcanic Plateau.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Got numbers on the CO2 emissions (presumably for the production) of modern solar arrays? They don’t have the major concrete, steel and plumbing* overhead.

            ________
            *Geothermal requires some of the more expensive corrosion-resistant pipe than a lot of FF thermal power plants require.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            You (NZ) and Iceland are just so smug about your near-mantle heating systems!

  2. John Oneill Says:

    I think Philipines, Japan, and Indonesia have more geothermal than New Zealand, but with far more people, it doesn’t go far. It’s all in the North Island, not my end of the country – but the rock gets anomylously hot at shallow depths near the Southern Alps, because it hasn’t noticed yet that the last glaciation shaved a lot of its insulating blanket off, a few thousand years back. The heat moves so slowly that it’s not really a renewable resource, more mining heat – but there’s a lot of it to mine, if they can drill cheap enough through that hard igneous rock.


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