In what one observer called a “power to the people” moment, 28 residents of a tiny Old West town convinced their county commissioner to vote against a multimillion-dollar energy project that they staunchly opposed.
The Hollywood-worthy ending came as the sun was setting outside the Washoe County Commission Chambers in Reno, Nevada. Up for debate was the permit to allow geothermal drilling right next to the remote town of Gerlach, a two-hour drive north.
In a stunning decision, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to deny the local permit, a rare move that defied federal approval for the project.
And though expert lawyers, multinational organizations and national officials had weighed in on both sides of the debate, county commissioners said it was the impassioned voices of Gerlach's citizens that convinced them to support the frontier community instead of the energy company.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Washoe County Commission Vice Chair Jeanne Herman, who moved to overturn the permit. As the representative from the county’s northernmost and least-populated district, which includes Gerlach, she told The Standard, “I know we need this type of project but we don’t want to do damage to a town, either.”
A Controversial Energy Project
The Gerlach geothermal project is the basis for a complicated lawsuit brought by Burning Man, environmental organizations and local property owners—who were later joined by the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe—against the Bureau of Land Management for approving explorational drilling on the land immediately behind the town.
The historic town is the last stop before the Black Rock Desert site of the annual Burning Man gathering. After more than thirty years of holding the gathering nearby, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Burning Man Project is now a major property owner and employer in Gerlach.
Residents and opponents say the approval was fast-tracked and did not include a rigorous examination of the impact that drilling and the potential for a future power plant would have on the residents, economy and environment.
The company in charge of the project, Ormat Technologies, is a multinational energy company that runs numerous geothermal plants in the Western U.S., including one in Reno, that produce carbon-free power for thousands of homes in Nevada and California.
Ormat told The Standard it believes the government has followed the correct processes and will prevail in federal court. The company did not respond to a request for comment following the county decision Tuesday.
Debate Over the County Permit
The land immediately behind the homes of Gerlach is federal property, and the project was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in October 2022. The only local approval needed for the project to begin involves a review of whether the usage of the land complies with county plans. Washoe County commissioners had given this permission for the explorational drilling in the form of an administrative permit at a hearing on Jan. 5.
However, no local opponents were present at the county hearing to oppose the decision because notice of the meeting was mailed out on Dec. 23. With many Gerlach residents and businesses busy or away for the holidays, they did not hear about the county hearing until after it happened. Hence, Burning Man and its co-litigants filed the lawsuit against the project in federal court and appealed the permit from the county, as well.
Moving Testimony and a Dramatic Decision
The appeal of the geothermal permit in Gerlach was No. 19 on a long docket of items for the Washoe County commissioners to hear Tuesday. Though the meeting began at 10 a.m., the agenda items were passing slowly. In the afternoon, Chair Alexis Hill moved the permit debate ahead in the lineup to keep the Gerlachians—about one-fifth of the town’s population—from having to make the two-hour drive home after dark.
At about 4 p.m., one by one, 18 residents of Gerlach took the podium to describe the reasons why the town opposed the project. Citing county-level concerns such as water sourcing and traffic, and town-level issues, like economic opportunities, environmental impact and quality of life, residents pleaded with commissioners to reconsider their OK for the industrial project.
To counter the townspeople’s many worries, Ormat’s lawyer promised to meet with the town and hear out the residents' concerns. The company's counsel also accused Burning Man of planning its own geothermal project on its properties in the area.
Commissioners asked many questions after the speakers concluded, including whether the notice and timing of the prior Jan. 5 hearing were appropriate, given there was so much local opposition to the project.
A Stunning Decision
Nearly two hours of discussion had passed by the time the decision fell to Vice Chair Herman, a rancher, realtor and nine-year veteran of the commission. After vacillating between approving the project “with conditions” and rejecting it, Herman moved to rescind the permit.
And when two other commissioners voted with Herman to overturn the permit, the gallery erupted in cheers.
“We would like to thank Washoe County commissioners Herman, [Michael] Clark and [Clara] Andriola for siding with the community of Gerlach on this critical issue,” said Tina Walters, head of the Gerlach Citizens Advisory Board and one of the locals who spoke before the commission Tuesday.
“Gerlach residents have been asking smart questions about this project for two years,” Burning Man Project’s Director of Government Affairs Marnee Benson said in a statement after the hearing. “Today their concerns were heard. This community stood up and made a difference. Burning Man is pleased to have played a role in protecting the town and this special wilderness area we call home.”
What’s Next for Gerlach
Washoe County’s decision is final, but Ormat may seek to appeal the decision to the state or take other legal action. Nonetheless, the project will be delayed for a substantial period of time.
Gerlachians are hoping the extra time will allow the town to realize more of its 10-year plan to turn the Black Rock Desert town into a base for outdoor adventure, art, dark skies and Burner tourism, a la Joshua Tree or Marfa, Texas. It’s a goal that industrial-scale energy exploration would have stopped in its tracks.
“You can’t chase two rabbits at the same time,” said Carl Copek, a Gerlach resident who spoke before the county commissioners on Tuesday, emphasizing the incompatibility of the geothermal project with local interests.
On Tuesday night, Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell bought rounds of drinks at Joe's, one of Gerlach's three bars, as the townspeople gathered to celebrate the decision. Several rousing choruses of "We Are the Champions" were sung by the crowd.
“There was so much wrong with this project—too many questions are still unanswered,” said Dave Cooper, a longtime Gerlach resident, retired Bureau of Land Management manager and co-litigant in the federal lawsuit. “Gerlach’s going to change, and we want to be in charge of our own destiny.”
Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]