Steens Wind (ONDA v. Jewell)
ONDA and Audubon Society of Portland filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of the Interior's approval of Columbia Energy Partners' plan to build an industrial-scale wind facility on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon’s high desert. In May 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with ONDA that Interior had failed to adequately consider the project's effects on the Greater sage-grouse.
The decision would have allowed the developer to build up to 69 wind turbines and a high-capacity transmission line on this iconic mountain recognized as part of our National Landscape Conservation System. The lawsuit blocked what the conservation groups described as an illegal project that would have forever changed an otherwise wild and beautiful landscape.
In 2013, 2014, and again in 2015, ONDA petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to revoke the 2011 project approval decision. ONDA explained that, among other things, the developer had lost its interconnection agreement that was necessary to deliver any electricity to the grid, Southern California Edison had cancelled its agreement to purchase the any electricity generated by the project, the BLM had revoked its Notice to Proceed and refunded the project bond to the developer, the required county permit had become void, and that new science had continued to emerge demonstrating that the effects to Greater sage-grouse of industrial-scale wind projects are far more serious than the agency had conceded in its 2010 environmental review.
By 2016, this crumbling financial and regulatory framework, coupled with powerful new spatial analyses illustrating the severe impacts the project would have on sage-grouse, made it clearer than ever that this simply is not the place for an industrial-scale energy project. Despite these seemingly fatal problems, the BLM rejected ONDA's petition in June 2014, leaving conservationists to continue to fight the illegal project in court. (The Secretary never responded to the petitions.) In March of 2016, ONDA argued the case before a three-judge appellate panel in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Transmission lines for the project would have cut across an area on Steens Mountain protected by Congress in 2000 and the project would fragment one of the largest undeveloped landscapes left in the Great Basin. Wind turbines, transmission lines, access roads, and associated development pose threats to migratory routes and breeding areas for sensitive species such as bighorn sheep, Golden eagles, and Greater sage-grouse. The sage-grouse is an iconic desert bird that serves as an indicator of ecological health in the region; populations have declined significantly over the past several decades due primarily to loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat. In particular, the Ninth Circuit agreed that the Bureau of Land Management's failure to survey the project area for crucial winter habitat was fatal to the agency's environmental review.