Judge sends Searchlight Wind farm project back to square one

A federal judge on Friday basically told the company that has been seeking to build a wind generation farm east of Searchlight and the federal land agencies trying to accommodate the project to start over and fix the flawed environmental analysis or abandon the project.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du granted the plaintiffs’ request that Interior Department’s Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the Biological Opinion be vacated because they fail to adequately address concerns about impacts on bald eagles, golden eagles, desert tortoises and migrating bats, but she refused to grant a permanent injunction.

Searchlight Wind, now a division of Apex Clean Energy, has been trying for at least seven years to gain government approval to place wind turbines on 19,000 acres of federal land — at the paltry price of $118 an acre — near Searchlight. The $300 million proposal was to erect 87 industrial-scale wind turbines that would be more than 400 feet tall and generate 200 megawatts of power.

Simulation of what windmills might look like east of Searchlight and near Lake Mohave, home to bald and golden eagle.

In her February order ordering Interior and Searchlight Wind review the project’s environmental impact, Judge Du pointed out the initial data used by the Bureau of Land Management found there were only three golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed turbines. Subsequent surveys actually found 19 probable or confirmed golden eagle nests within five miles of the site, the judge wrote.

The BLM’s original study relied on data from Idaho. “In December 2012, however, researchers published a study addressing golden eagle home ranges and foraging distances in the Mojave Desert,” Judge Du writes. “The study shows larger home range sizes and foraging distances than those reported in the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement). Taken together, this new information is sufficient to show significant environmental effects that Federal Defendants should consider in an SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).”

Du also told the BLM to re-evaluate its conclusions about the impact of the project on desert tortoises, especially the effects of blasting and noises of the turbines during operation.

In a press release at that time the conservation groups who filed the federal suit to block the project stated that a survey actually found 28 golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site and that a new study shows golden eagles in the Mojave Desert travel nearly 10 times as far from their nests to forage as previously thought.

The plaintiffs include Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, Basin and Range Watch and individuals Judy Bundorf, Ellen Ross and Ronald Van Fleet Sr.

The original suit accused the Interior Department of acting in “a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

So far as I can find, the project has yet to find a buyer for the electricity the project proposes to produce. Without a contracted buyer it is questionable whether the company will find it practical to continue to sink money into a project that might never get approved due to the environmental hurdles.

But the government has 60 days to appeal, though there would be no point if Apex doesn’t have the wherewithal. Also the wind production tax credit expired at the end of 2014 and Congress has yet to extend it.

Judy Bundorf, the lead plaintiff in the case, reacted by saying:

I’m thrilled that the people who live in and around Searchlight won’t have to deal with the impact of such a huge construction project and the noise and flashing lights 24/7 for 25 or 30 years after the project is built.

Equally important, the untouched desert and variety of desert wildlife, including birds, mammals, and reptiles, not to mention Joshua tree forests, deserve to be protected.

Further, the proximity of the proposed wind project to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Spirit Mountain, and numerous wilderness areas makes it unsuitable for large-scale industrial development of any kind.

Du’s Friday ruling: 13-616 Order Granting Vacatur 10-30-15

Du’s February ruling: Opinion_on_Summary_Judgment_2-3-15

 

Judge orders Interior Department to further review its environmental impact studies for Searchlight Wind Project

A federal judge has sent the Interior Department back to the drawing board and told it to rework paperwork that resulted in granting a Record of Decision allowing the construction of a wind turbine farm east of Searchlight. Interior had issued an environmental impact statement that found the project’s impact on endangered desert tortoises and protected bald and golden eagles was not great enough to reject the construction of wind turbines near Lake Mojave.

The Searchlight Wind Energy Project would erect 87 industrial-scale wind turbines that would be more than 400 feet tall.

In her ruling six weeks ago, Judge Miranda Du pointed out the initial data used by the Bureau of Land Management for the determination found that there were only three golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed turbines — similar turbines near Ely have killed two golden eagles in two years. Subsequent surveys actually found 19 probable or confirmed golden eagle nests within five miles of the site, the judge wrote.

Simulation of what windmills may look it east of Searchlight and near Lake Mohave, home to bald and golden eagle.

Also, the original study relied on Idaho data about the foraging distances golden eagles may fly from their nests.

“In December 2012, however, researchers published a study addressing golden eagle home ranges and foraging distances in the Mojave Desert,” Judge Du writes. “The study shows larger home range sizes and foraging distances than those reported in the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement). Taken together, this new information is sufficient to show significant environmental effects that Federal Defendants should consider in an SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).”

Du also told the BLM to re-evaluate its conclusions about the impact of the project on desert tortoises, especially the effects of blasting and noises of the turbines during operation.

In a press release this past week the conservation groups who filed the federal suit to block the project stated that a survey actually found 28 golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site and that a new study shows golden eagles in the Mojave Desert travel nearly 10 times as far from their nests to forage as previously thought.

The plaintiffs include Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, Basin and Range Watch and individuals Judy Bundorf, Ellen Ross and Ronald Van Fleet Sr.

“The Searchlight area merits preservation from large-scale industrial development. The historic town is the ‘Gateway to Lake Mohave’ and Cottonwood Cove in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and is surrounded by beautiful Joshua trees and abundant wildlife,” said Searchlight resident Bundorf. “Thousands of tourists visit each year, and enjoy the wide-open vistas and unspoiled Mojave Desert scenery. Allowing a 9,000-acre, 14-square-mile industrial wind energy project around the town would be a death knell for tourism, and for the rural lifestyle of people who call the little community home.”

Interior has been cheerleading all kinds of bird killing renewable energy projects on public land.

The last time I checked the owners of the project had not found a buyer for the power the project would produce.

In 2012, Bundorf also testified before the Clark County Commission in an unsuccessful attempt to block extension of the wind farm’s deadline for beginning construction.

Bundorf compared the Searchlight project to the Sloan gravel pit project. Sen. Harry Reid, who had a home in Searchlight, fought the 640-acre gravel pit and managed to shut it down. Bundorf offered that she would rather have a hole in the ground than 87 huge windmills. She estimated the windmills, with 24-hour blinking strobe lights for aviation safety, will be visible from 20 miles away.

Reid has since sold his Searchlight home to a mining company and moved to Henderson. Coincidentally, when the project was first proposed it was to have 165 wind turbines, some on the west side of the town where Reid lived, but a comprise removed all the westernmost turbines.

Scenes from the Searchlight wind farm protest today

It would’ve made a much louder statement if the weather had cooperated and been a windless day, after all they were protesting the planned installation of an industry-scale wind turbine farm east of Searchlight. (See earlier blog for details and a photo simulation.)

There were at least 40 protesters — at least half members of local Indian tribes — standing next to U.S. 95 across the street from the Nugget Casino, whose  longtime owner Verlie Doing is friends with protest organizer Judy Bundorf.

Nugget Casino in Searchlight mentions protest on its sign.

Nugget Casino in Searchlight mentions protest on its sign.

Protesters wave signs at passing motorists

Protesters wave signs at passing motorists

Crowd picked as day wore on.

Crowd picked up as the day wore on.

Drummer and singer Jesse Figueroa of California played what he called intertribal songs. This one, appropriately, is the eagle song. Electric turbine windmills have killed many eagles over the years and there are numerous bald eagles on Lake Mohave.

Avi Kwa Ame is better known as Spirit Mountain, one several sacred peaks in the area.

Avi Kwa Ame is better known as Spirit Mountain, one of several sacred peaks in the area.

Longtime local resident Donna Andress, left, and a couple from nearby Nelson, which they called a suburb of Searchlight, brave the wind to protest the proposed wind farm.

Many of those driving by honked, especially truckers, possibly in agreement with the protesters.

Ruth Nolan

Among those wind-whipped souls was Ruth Nolan, an English professor at College of the Desert who lives in Palm Desert. A former wildland firefighter, she was concerned about the visual, ecological and geologic impact on the desert by such industrial-size construction projects.

The author of “No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts,” Nolan said she is concerned about how federal lands are being used, calling herself “more of an advocate,” who would like to see more respect for native people, desert flora and fauna, trails and archeology.

Area residents fear the windmills will be an eyesore that obstructs the scenery on the road to Cottonwood Cove on Lake Mohave.

Area residents fear the windmills will be an eyesore that obstructs the scenery on the road to Cottonwood Cove on Lake Mohave.

Many fear that century-old Joshua trees will be destroy during construction.

Many fear that century-old Joshua trees will be destroyed during construction.

County commissioners flunk math and approve windmill project east of Searchlight

Las Vegas was built on the premise that people are just too darned lazy to do the math and figure out that in the long run The House always, always wins.

And apparently that’s also the kind of people we elect to represent us on the Clark County Commission.

On Wednesday morning the commission unanimously agreed to extend for two years permits for Duke Energy to erect 87 wind turbines — each as tall as the Palms hotel at 425 feet — on 19,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management controlled land east of Searchlight. (Speaking of math, I’m still trying to figure out how the original 300-megawatt project with 165 windmills can be cut to 87 windmills that produce 230 megawatts.) It seems that after all these years the BLM has still not issued an environmental impact statement, according to company spokesman Dick Bryan, the former senator and governor.

Joshua tree along Oregon Trails Road north of Searchlight.

Of course, neither has the company yet signed a buyer for any electricity it might someday produce, nor has Congress extended the production tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour that makes such projects financially viable.

Despite the fact wind energy costs three times as much as fossil fuel-generated power and requires tax subsidies and tax breaks to pencil out, the majority of commissioners fawned over the prospect of a handful of construction jobs — 300 to 400, according to Bryan — and ignored the fact that draining money from the private sector via higher power bills and taxes kills jobs — on average two to four for every one created. And those construction jobs might last for a year or so, while permanent jobs might amount to a couple dozen.

Though the Searchlight town board has twice voted to reject the windmill project, the commissioners — including Steve Sisolak, whose district includes Searchlight — backed it unanimously, sounding like Neanderthals mouthing: “Green energy good.”  So, don’t try to confuse them with facts or math. Their eyes glaze over.

The commissioners were more concerned with the potential for a substation to be located near a road where people might actually glimpse a string of concertina wire atop a chain link fence than with 87 windmills with 161-foot blades spinning in the wind, when the wind blows.

“I just don’t want barbed wire …” Sisolak said after Bryan assured the commission the substation walls would be block walls or something that fits into the environment. Wouldn’t want any ugly barbed wire blocking the scenery. No, sir.

“The jobs and the renewable energy portion of this are very, very important to me,” Sisolak continued. “The jobs are local for Nevada residents. I want to reiterate that. … We all are very aware of getting three or four hundred local people back to work” — and utterly unaware or unconcerned about the jobs that will be squandered.

Under questioning by Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, Bryan admitted the company has not found a buyer for its juice but has had some conversations with NV Energy, the local electric utility. Giunchigliani expressed hope that NV Energy would purchase the wind power, apparently without regard for what such a purchase would do to the power bills of her constituents. NV Energy has said it plans to buy only 250 megawatt-hours of renewable power in 2014 and 2015, and Duke will not be the only firm competing for those contracts — more than two dozen other projects are on the drawing board on BLM land in Southern Nevada alone.

Sisolak chimed in and said he has talked to NV Energy about buying more renewable energy even though he was told that would not be cost effective since the company has already met its legislated mandate for purchasing more expensive “green” energy.

Four people spoke out against the project at the commission meeting. At meetings in Searchlight dozens have opposed the wind farm.

“This is not an eco friendly project,” Searchlight resident Judy Bundorf testified as the commissioners deliberated — though it was less deliberation than pontification and pandering. “Pardon me to offer one more bit of math. When they say it’s a 200-megawatt project, that’s if the wind is blowing between 15 and 40 miles per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Typical output from commercial wind farms ranges from 20 and 30 percent of the nameplate rating. In England during the last cold spell two years ago, they were getting 5 percent or less. …

“This is my first time at the rodeo, because I’ve never been involved in having my property value threatened at this extent.”

Earlier Bundorf compared the Searchlight project to the Sloan gravel pit project. Sen. Harry Reid, who has a home in Searchlight, fought the 640-acre gravel pit and managed to shut it down. Bundorf offered that she would rather have a hole in the ground than 87 huge windmills. She estimated the windmills, with 24-hour blinking strobe lights for aviation safety, will be visible from 20 miles away.

Lynn Davis of the National Parks Conservation Association pointed out that the project will sit astride two national recreation areas, Lake Mead National Recreational Area and Mojave National Preserve.

Donna Andress, who has lived in the area since 1927, suggested 100-year-old Joshua trees could be destroyed by the project.

Local real estate broker and kayak guide Ellen Ross also did some math and estimated the BLM land lease costs renewable energy companies about $118 per acre. “I’d like a deal like that,” she said. “By building these projects you are degradating not only the community, but tourism and land values, which mean you have less real estates taxes, less income in your municipality. You have less people. You are destroying the potential that Las Vegas was built for.”

Ross noted such scenery exists nowhere else in the world. She said the project is subsidizing industrialization in the pristine desert at the expense of a small community.

It’s simple math, but our commissioners can’t or won’t do the math.

Here is what one small area near a home near Searchlight looks like now:

Before

This is a simulation of the same scene with windmills, but it does not show the roads and power lines that will be necessary as well:

After

(Photos courtesy of Basin and Range Watch)