The annual Burning Man festival returned to the Nevada desert last summer after a two-year absence due to COVID-19. However, organizers are concerned that the serene environment may be disrupted by a proposed geothermal power plant that they claim is being overlooked by federal regulators. Despite objections from the festival sponsors and others, the federal agency approved the company’s planning phase in October, stating that it would have no significant environmental impact. However, the lawyers for Burning Man’s organizers argue that this decision paves the way for an industrial scale geothermal power plant and power lines that will permanently alter the landscape. They are calling for a full environmental study to be conducted, including alternative options to the project, and for action to be blocked under the current plan.
Burning Man, a festival that began in San Francisco 30 years ago, now attracts around 80,000 people to the desert for a week of art displays, pyrotechnics, and general revelry. The festival’s headquarters are located in the nearby town of Gerlach, where resident and advisory board member, Andy Moore, has joined a lawsuit against the proposed geothermal power plant. Moore states in a statement that, “What we are against is a company coming in, disregarding our public input, ignoring our questions, giving false statements, and damaging our community in order to fill their shareholders pockets while destroying our quiet nights, our property values, and our peace.” The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment on the issue. Ormat, the company behind the proposed power plant, has stated that they consider the lawsuit to be without merit.
Ormat argues that their exploration project is in line with the law and the realities of geothermal development. Ormat spokesperson, Zamir Dahbash, stated that the company is evaluating whether to intervene in the lawsuit and looks forward to continuing their contribution to Nevada’s green energy and zero-emission future, offsetting some of the fossil fuel emissions from the Burning Man festival. However, the lawsuit claims that Ormat’s proposed drilling wells, which would be located near current hot springs and use the same geothermal fluid that currently heats the springs, threaten the continued existence of these unique environmental resources that are relied upon by the local community for tourism and as a fundamental water source.
The lawyers for Burning Man’s organizers also cited a Bureau of Land Management report from 2004, which described the area’s Black Rock-High Rock Lands as a “very special piece of the American landscape” and stated that the agency’s goal is to preserve this exceptional area for future generations to enjoy. The new agency-approved plan, as described in the lawsuit, opens up a portion of the Black Rock-High Rock Lands known as the South Playa to new geothermal leasing. The lawsuit also claims that Ormat initially requested the agency’s approval for the construction of two geothermal plants and a power line at the site in 2020, but scaled back their plans after facing backlash and instead proposed a five-year exploration plan with limited initial development, but major plans for the future. The lawsuit alleges that Ormat “illegally segmented this project” and misled the government into approving it.