Ice age fossils slow massive power line for renewable energy

By Scott Streater | 03/02/2023 01:22 PM EST

The 470-mile-long Greenlink West transmission line could cut across a Nevada national monument that preserves the fossils of long-extinct species like the Columbian mammoth. That’s slowed down a project many consider key for expansion of solar projects on public lands.

A view of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument near Las Vegas.

A view of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument near Las Vegas. Matthew Dillon/Flickr

The federal review of a key transmission line to connect commercial-scale solar projects in Nevada to millions of households has been delayed by months over concerns about a likely route across a national monument designed to protect thousands of ice age fossils.

The 470-mile-long Greenlink West transmission line would stretch along Nevada’s western boundary, from Las Vegas north to Reno, carrying as much as 4,000 megawatts of mostly renewable electricity from dozens of proposed solar projects in the state.

The Bureau of Land Management last spring began an environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing the proposal by NV Energy that has already sparked a flurry of solar project applications along its presumed path. The Greenlink West project is a priority for the Biden administration as it works to expand the power grid to support green energy projects often located in remote areas.


But the draft environmental review originally set to be released for public comment in January has been delayed, likely until May, due to NV Energy's proposal to place the line across 1.5 miles of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, according to a senior Interior Department official with knowledge of the situation who was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

BLM is leaning toward making the proposed route across the monument its "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS, advancing plans to place as many as 12 power-line poles within the monument managed by the National Park Service, the official said. The line would run 5 feet inside the monument near the road that splits the north and south units of the 22,650-acre monument, which was established by Congress in 2014 to protect the fossils of long-extinct species like the Columbian mammoth and the sabertooth cat.

Conservation groups are already raising alarms about the possibility of the power line disturbing fossils, saying the federal government should prioritize preservation along with energy transmission. Proponents counter moving on the transmission projects needed to connect renewable energy to the grid should be BLM’s priority. The complications surrounding the line — which several experts said is an important link in establishing renewable energy in remote areas of the West — underscore the challenges for the Biden administration in quickly approving renewable energy projects on public lands.

“In 2023, most transmission lines are at capacity,” said Scott Sklar, director of George Washington University's Solar Institute. “If we want to transform the U.S. grid to carbon neutrality, the federal government and states must accelerate transmission lines to reach the concentration of renewable energy, just like our old grid at first went to hydropower sites and coal mines."

The region is filled with federally protected lands. BLM, in addition to considering the Tule Springs Fossil Beds site, has had to place the power line around Nellis Air Force Base, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and various Native American tribal sites, among others.

If the Biden administration decides to move forward with the line cutting through the monument, BLM, NPS and NV Energy have developed a detailed mitigation plan that will involve excavating fossils before any holes for the power-line poles are dug, the Interior official said.

NPS knows there are likely numerous fossils buried in and around the proposed route because NV Energy, at the Park Service's request, funded a study last fall that used "ground penetrating radar" to uncover evidence of numerous fossils beds in the area.

The results of the studyconducted in September by a third-party contractor — in collaboration with NPS senior paleontologist Vincent Santucci, two U.S. Geological Survey geologists and the monument's former acting superintendent — found "deposits deemed to have a high likelihood of vertebrate fossil presence."

Among the discoveries highlighted in the report — obtained through a public records request by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — were "two proboscidean tusks" that could have belonged to a woolly mammoth. The tusks are buried less than 5 feet underground.

Radar images at another site appeared to detect dozens of fossils scattered across a 100-foot-wide area, most buried less than 30 feet, according to the report.

"Barring alternative explanations for these anomalies, the most reasonable explanation is that they are likely caused by the presence of fossils," it concluded.

After the BLM acknowledged in public scoping hearings last year that crossing the Tule Springs Fossil Beds monument was a possibility for the project, conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy began to urge the bureau to find another way.

Jeff Ruch, an attorney and the director of PEER's Pacific regional office, said that after the radar study, BLM cannot allow the power line to cross the national monument without knowingly violating federal laws that forbid harming park resources and the destruction of fossils on public lands.

"These legal barriers cannot be finessed," Ruch said. "If BLM and NV Energy persist with their current corridor route, the project will be tied up in litigation for years to come."

But the Greenlink West line is "very, very important" to the success of ongoing federal efforts to expand the nation's power grid to accommodate renewables, Sklar said.

"My view is that … we need these new-era transmission lines ASAP — period," he added.

Another expert familiar with the location said he believes the line can be run across the monument without damaging priceless fossils — although they would likely need to be removed.

Eric Scott, a California-based vertebrate paleontologist and member of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument advisory council that advises the Interior secretary and NPS on monument-related issues, said he worked with BLM during construction of a different transmission line near Las Vegas that went online in 2020.

Along the route for the Harry Allen to El Dorado 500-kilovolt transmission line, he said, they unearthed "thousands of fossils" that were removed and carefully cataloged so that the correct sediment formation and depth were recorded for each one, allowing for accurate dating.

"It has been done," he said, emphasizing that he was speaking as a paleontologist and not for the other members of the advisory panel.

The key is for BLM and NPS to develop a comprehensive mitigation plan that outlines the roles of the paleontologists on-site, as well as the construction crews. That plan must be clear that when fossils are found, the work must stop until they are removed and categorized properly, he said.

Scott said he didn't need to see the results of the ground penetrating radar study to know there are many fossils in the area, noting the Las Vegas Formation is a treasure trove for fossils dating back, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of years.

"If you are working the Las Vegas Formation, there's a good chance you're going to encounter ice age fossils," he said.

Are there alternatives?

A Columbian mammoth tusk that was excavated by the San Bernardino County Museum from the Las Vegas Formation.
A Columbian mammoth tusk that was excavated by the San Bernardino County Museum from the Las Vegas Formation is shown. | San Bernardino County Museum/National Park Service

BLM has evaluated several alternative routes for the Greenlink West project, which will consist of lines on high towers, some as high as 180 feet.

One option is to place the line several miles south of the monument, along Clark County Route 215, before connecting with U.S. Highway 95 and north toward Reno. But doing so would add miles to the route, and thus millions of dollars in additional project costs. It also has the potential to affect private property near North Las Vegas.

Another possibility is burying the 1.5-mile section of line across the Tule Springs Fossil Beds monument.

BLM declined to comment on the ground penetrating radar study, and how the fossils might affect the Greenlink West project. It also did not answer questions from E&E News concerning potential safeguards under consideration to protect fossils if the line crosses the monument.

Instead, the bureau said in a brief emailed statement that it will continue working to complete the environmental review, which it said will "analyze a reasonable range of alternatives, including the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts," as well as "potential mitigation measures."

BLM also declined to give an updated timeline for the draft EIS, saying only that it would be released for public comment sometime this year.

NV Energy, the Las Vegas-based utility, proposed an aggressive goal to have a record of decision approving the project by December so that it can begin the three-year construction period and bring the project into service by the end of 2026, Greg Helseth, branch chief of BLM Nevada's renewable energy division, said during public scoping hearings last May.

The company has said the line will enhance reliability of the regional power grid, as well as help meet state renewable energy portfolio and greenhouse gas emissions standards over the coming decade.

BLM remains on track to issue a record of decision by the end of the year despite the recent delay, the Interior official said.

An NPS spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Derek Carter, superintendent of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds monument, said in an email that the Park Service’s “technical contributions” to the EIS process will “focus on the importance of this site in the preservation, education, and study of Ice Age fossils, consistent with the purpose of the park and the mission of the NPS.”

But NPS has expressed concerns to BLM about routing the Greenlink West line across the national monument.

In written comments sent to BLM last summer, the Park Service said crossing the monument has "the potential to impact paleontological resources, including an undetermined number of fossil remains and unrecorded fossil sites."

NV Energy said in an emailed statement that it's working closely with BLM to properly site the power line.

The utility added that BLM "is conducting archaeological and paleontological surveys to determine if impacts may occur" as a result of the project.

"Should sensitive resources be encountered, NV Energy will adhere to the BLM’s mitigation requirements," the statement said.

Strong opposition

The 100-megawatt MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array.
The 100-megawatt MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array launched on June 28, 2021, in Dry Lake Valley, Nev. There are numerous solar projects proposed for public lands outside Las Vegas. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Routing the Greenlink West line through the monument will almost certainly face stiff resistance.

Kevin Emmerich, the founder of Nevada-based Basin and Range Watch, said the group is staunchly opposed to the transmission line crossing the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, saying there's great risk of "damaging fossils" at the site.

That view is echoed by Jill DeStefano, who like Scott is a member of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument advisory council.

"With the ground-penetrating radar that's been done in the area, they know they will be disturbing fossil sites, and this monument was created to protect the fossil sites," said DeStefano, past president of Protectors of Tule Springs, a community group that organized grassroots efforts convincing Congress to designate the monument in 2014.

If BLM decides to route the line across the Tule Springs Fossil Beds monument, it likely would use wooden Delta monopoles, about 120 feet tall, that could drape the power lines on one side to make them less visible. NV Energy could do so across the 1.5-mile section of the monument using as few as eight poles, according to BLM documents.

Another option is to use lattice "Guyed-V" towers that stand about 180 feet tall, but are stronger than the monopoles, requiring only six to be erected across the monument site, the documents say.

The need for transmission

One of the major transmission lines that runs to the west of Albuquerque, N.M.
One of the major transmission lines that runs to the west of Albuquerque, N.M. | Susan Montoya Bryan/AP Photo

Few question the Greenlink West project would help the Biden administration meet the dual goals of promoting commercial-scale renewable energy production and expanding the nation's power grid.

As the Biden administration pushes for a carbon-free energy sector by 2035, it's on pace to exceed an Energy Act of 2020 goal to permit 25,000 MW of onshore renewable energy by 2025, the Interior Department has reported to Congress (Greenwire, April 20, 2022).

In that report, Interior estimated it would permit 48 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects with the capacity to produce an estimated 31,827 MW of electricity by the end of 2025. The vast majority of that energy — 29,595 MW — will be produced by solar projects, according to the report.

In Nevada alone, BLM is currently evaluating 36 renewable energy projects, mostly solar. If all were built, they would have the capacity to produce more than 13,000 MW of electricity – enough to power roughly 4 million homes, an Interior spokesperson recently told E&E News.

But experts say transmission capacity is lagging.

David Spence, an expert on the law and politics of energy development at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, said the nation is "desperately in need of additional transmission investment."

That's supported by a recent analysis led by Princeton University's Zero-carbon Energy Systems Research and Optimization Laboratory that concluded "the pace of transmission expansion must more than double the rate over the last decade" in order to "interconnect new renewable resources at sufficient pace and meet growing demand from electric vehicles, heat pumps, and other electrification."

It added, "Constraining transmission growth severely limits the expansion of wind and solar power."

Yet, Spence said, "We built less than 1,000 miles of new [high-voltage] transmission last year, and we need something like 200,000 miles in the next 10 years."

Already numerous solar and wind projects in various stages of regulatory review are being "held up, in part, by lack of transmission" capacity, he said.

"The grid is old and wearing out, and we need to make it bigger in any case to take advantage of this newly cheap clean power," he said. "Inevitably, some of those lines are going to go through places where people don’t want them to go."

But the legitimate need to expand transmission capacity to carry renewable energy to market doesn't justify "ruining our public lands," said DeStefano, the advisory council member.

"Almost every environmental group on Earth is pro-green energy, yet organization after organization after organization are against" the Greenlink West transmission line crossing the monument, she said. "Why is that?"