White House hosts large meeting on eagle permitting for wind farms

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013

The White House last week gathered about two dozen of its top environmental officials, outside conservationists and renewable energy leaders to discuss a controversial rule designed to protect eagles while promoting wind energy development.

The meeting last Wednesday included White House climate change adviser Heather Zichal, American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan, Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark and National Audubon Society President David Yarnold, according to a meeting notice by the White House.

It also included additional representatives from AWEA, Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as six Interior Department officials.

The meeting was to discuss the Fish and Wildlife Service’s final rule to extend the length of “take” permits for wind farms to disturb or kill eagles from five years to 30 years, a proposal requested by the wind industry but that has raised significant opposition among wildlife advocates.

Though they are not endangered, bald and golden eagles are protected by federal law from being killed or harmed. Interior since 2009 has allowed developers to obtain five-year take permits as long as strict avoidance and mitigation steps have been taken and overall harm to eagles will not reduce the local population.

In April 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed extending take permits to 30 years to ensure regulatory certainty for wind farms and help projects secure financing, among other reasons (Greenwire, April 16, 2012).

The White House is “getting pretty close to the finish line” on the final rule, according to one conservationist who attended the meeting.

Wildlife advocates still worry that not enough safeguards are in place to ensure that bald and golden eagle populations do not decline as a result of the rapid expansion of wind farms, whose towering turbines consume the birds’ habitat and threaten to strike them down.

“Regional conservation plans are not formalized,” the conservationist said. “The concepts are there. We’re just trying to get them into regulation.”

The White House made no promises to incorporate those concerns in the final rule, the conservationist said.

Conservation groups generally support a permit system that would require wind developers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to more accurately predict eagle impacts, but they argue too little is known about the long-term effects of wind farms to issue 30-year permits

In an emailed statement, John Anderson, AWEA’s director of siting policy, who also attended the meeting, said the wind industry does more to “avoid, minimize and mitigate” its impact to eagles than any of the other, far larger, sources of eagle kills known by wildlife experts.

He said AWEA continues to support FWS’s efforts to make the duration of eagle take permits consistent with those available under the Endangered Species Act, which already allows the issuance of habitat conservation plans and incidental take permits for endangered species for up to 100 years.

AWEA a year ago told Interior that financing for wind farms requires “a high level of certainty that regulatory approvals will remain in effect over a facility’s serviceable life and not allow for additional previously unanticipated mitigation costs to be applied at a later date.”

Anderson said, “AWEA and the industry look forward to continuing to work with our partners in the conservation community to ensure that under the eagle permit process, which is available for all sources of human-caused eagle loss and not just wind energy, the conservation needs of bald and golden eagles are being met.

The proposed rule would also significantly hike industry fees to help defray the cost of developing adaptive mitigation measures and monitoring permit effectiveness — from $1,000 to up to $36,000. In addition, the agency proposed a new administrative fee ranging from $2,600 for five-year permits to $15,600 for 30-year permits

While permits would last 30 years, additional mitigation steps could be triggered if the eagle take exceeds expectations, among other stipulations.

The White House also hosted meetings on June 7 and July 19 to discuss the eagle permitting rule, a sign that the policy has drawn intense interest from stakeholders and the West Wing.

AWEA’s Anderson, Tom Vinson and Eugene Grace attended the June meeting with officials from Interior, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget. The July meeting included Bill Weeks, who directs the Conservation Law Center, and a former official of the American Bird Conservancy.

Promoting renewable energy and conservation has been a tricky balancing act for the Obama administration, which is pushing hard to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions but has at times received push-back for approving projects in sensitive wildlife habitats.

Critics have also accused the Obama administration of enforcing bird protection laws on fossil fuel interests while letting the wind and solar industry have a pass.

An Associated Press investigation in May found that wind farms have never faced prosecution or fines for the deaths of eagles and other protected bird species (Greenwire, May 14).