A Struggle to Balance Wind Energy With Wildlife

Source: By DAN FROSCH, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Noah Berger/Associated Press Wind turbines at the Altamont Pass near Livermore, Calif.

DENVER — As the Obama administration seeks to clear a path for more renewable energy projects, it has increasingly found itself caught between two staunch allies: the wind energy industry and environmental organizations.

Tensions between both groups and the administration have risen since a new federal rule was announced this month allowing wind farms to lawfully kill bald and golden eagles under 30-year permits.

Conservation groups reacted with anger to the rule, saying it gives wind farms too much leeway to operate without sufficient environmental safeguards and does not consider the long-term impact on eagle populations.

“A 30-year permit is like a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, which was involved in months of negotiations on the rule. “It basically says you can go operate these wind turbines and kill as many eagles as happen to die.”

Conservation groups said the United States Fish and Wildlife Service needlessly rejected an agreement, also endorsed by the wind industry, to develop more detailed regional plans that would set firm, research-based limits on how many eagles could be killed in a particular geographic area.

“We put a historic deal on the table, and they didn’t have the vision to say yes,” Mr. Yarnold said.

“Eagles are migratory birds,” he added. “Having a regional plan that reflects how they live and where they travel just makes sense.”

Federal wildlife officials defended the rule, which will take effect early next year, saying it sought to balance the practical considerations of long-term wind farm projects with the need to keep eagle populations stable.

While neither bald nor golden eagles are considered endangered — the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007 — both birds are still afforded federal wildlife protections. It is illegal to kill or hunt them without a proper permit.

Since 2009, wind farms have been able to apply for five-year permits, allowing them to “take” — meaning kill — a certain number of eagles, as long as the farms demonstrate that they have undertaken adequate measures to keep the birds safe.

The new rule extends the maximum term of the permits to 30 years. It includes federal reviews every five years to assess whether sufficient measures are being taken to make sure eagles are being conserved.

While it is unknown precisely how many birds are killed by wind turbines annually — usually by flying into a turbine’s path — estimates range from 10,000 to more than 500,000. According to the American Wind Energy Association, eagles account for only a tiny fraction of those deaths.

The group said that less than 2 percent of the annual golden eagle deaths from human causes are because of wind turbines, and fewer than six bald eagles have ever been killed by a wind turbine.

Last month, in the first case of its kind, Duke Energy agreed to pay $1 million in fines after a subsidiary pleaded guilty in federal court in Wyoming to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The company was charged with killing dozens of birds since 2009, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farm projects.

Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that ensuring eagle populations are preserved is a central focus of the new rule.

“The conservation element is key,” he said. “We’re not going to authorize a permit unless we believe it provides for the conservation of eagles.”

Mr. Ashe added that the wildlife service would issue a permit only if a wind developer had minimized the risk to eagles through its choice of location and the design of the project, among other variables. Regional thresholds on how many eagles can realistically be killed are already in place, according to the service.

Mr. Ashe said that many of the measures presented by environmentalists and the wind energy industry would likely be considered as the permitting process continued to be modified.

For its part, the American Wind Energy Association has publicly endorsed the new permitting process, saying that the spirit of many points of common interest had been included, or would be addressed in the near future.

The group said that it expected wind companies would seek the longer permits, because it made more sense than having to reapply every five years.

“This is a conservation plan for eagles,” said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the association, “so all efforts must be first made to reduce the potential for impacts on eagles and then fully offset them.”

“Wind developers are willing to go through all these requirements,” he added. “It is in the best interest of the species from a conservation standpoint, as well as their own from the standpoint of legal certainty.”