Some conservation groups fret over Interior’s approval of massive Wyo. wind farm

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012

Environmentalists today ripped the Obama administration’s decision to approve a wind power project in southeast Wyoming, arguing that the massive wind farm is improperly sited and will cause grave harm to golden eagles and greater sage grouse.

The American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s largest bird conservation group, accused the Bureau of Land Management of conducting an “incomplete impact analysis” that will lead “to blatantly bad siting” of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, which proposes to string together as many as 1,000 turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands. The project would have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest power-producing wind farm in North America.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced yesterday that he had signed a record of decision for the project, saying approval of the wind farm will allow the nation to meet a goal set forth in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to approve roughly 10,000 MW of new renewable energy projects on federal land by 2015 (Greenwire, Oct. 9).

“This is a very troubling decision,” said Kelly Fuller, ABC’s wind campaign coordinator.

ABC and officials with the Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance today said the project would have a huge impact on birds in the region, noting BLM’s own conclusion in the final environmental impact statement last summer that the project could result in the deaths of as many as 64 golden eagles each year.

The groups said BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to “rigorously examine reasonable alternatives” to the project site. And they expressed frustration that the record of decision was not available for review online, “a clear attempt to prevent opposing viewpoints from being able to immediately review and comment to interested persons on this fractured process in a timely fashion.”

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said the agency should site the project elsewhere, “such as the High Plains to the east of the Laramie Range, where it would have had minimal impacts on rare and sensitive wildlife. Instead, it is being sited on lands … designated as a [state-identified] sage-grouse core area due to the complex of breeding populations found there, and the projected impacts on golden eagles, a bird with a low reproductive rate, will cause far-reaching problems.”

Fuller compared it with the infamous Altamont Pass wind resource area in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where many eagles are believed to have been killed in collisions with spinning turbine blades.

“This project is on track to become the single most deadly wind farm for eagles in the country, an Altamont Pass II,” she said.

Power Company of Wyoming, the project proponent, said in a statement that it used advanced technology and an expert team of ecologists and biologists to gather years of science-based preconstruction data on avian habitat and use, both in the specific wind development areas and well beyond.

“We have collected more scientific data in a broader area and to a finer degree than anyone else has ever done,” Bill Miller, Power Company of Wyoming’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “We know where turbines should and should not go. Our plan to microsite all turbines will assure potential impacts on wildlife are far lower than outlined in the general project-wide EIS, while also materially increasing the country’s clean energy supplies.”

BLM officials say the project was studied thoroughly. BLM acting Director Mike Pool said yesterday that the agency “is committed to responsibly developing renewable energy on our country’s public lands.”

“That includes an extensive environmental review and making sure that we’re mitigating the potential impacts of energy development on our wildlife and our lands,” Pool said.

Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society’s eight-state Rocky Mountain region based in Fort Collins, Colo., defended the agency last summer when the final EIS for the project was released to similar criticism (Greenwire, July 6).

Rutledge said officials with Power Company of Wyoming worked closely with Audubon and environmental regulators to site the wind turbines away from core sage grouse areas, and that the company has taken significant steps to mitigate impacts to golden eagles, going so far as to place radar equipment across the 220,000-acre project area to study bird movement and flight patterns. The company is using that data to “microsite” the individual turbines in ways that mitigate impacts, he said.