Environment

US to let wind farms escape penalties for eagle deaths

Permits will allow wind-energy companies avoid prosecution for killing or injuring up to 30 eagles a year

Turbines at a wind farm near Cheyenne, Wyo.
AP/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Michael Smith

Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the administration of President Barack Obama said Friday it will allow companies to escape prosecution for the deaths or injuries of eagles by wind farm turbines.

The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation's wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles being killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.

An investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year documented eagle deaths around wind farms, the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute such cases and its willingness to help keep the scope of the eagle deaths secret. Obama has championed the pollution-free source of energy, nearly doubling the United States’ wind power in his first term as a way to attempt to tackle global warming.

The new rule will provide legal protection for the life span of wind farms and other projects if companies obtain permits and make efforts to avoid the deaths of protected birds.

Companies would have to take additional measures if their facilities killed or injured more eagles than they had estimated they would, or if new information suggested that eagle populations were being affected. The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they killed. Now such reporting is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.

"This is not a program to kill eagles," said John Anderson, the director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. "This permit program is about conservation."

But conservation groups, which have been aligned with the industry on other issues, said the decision by the Interior Department sanctions the killing of an American icon.

"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. The group said it would challenge the decision.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornadolike vortices.

Flying eagles are often scanning the ground below for food, and occasionally do not notice the blades until it is too late.

Until now, no wind energy company has obtained permission authorizing the killing, injuring or harassment of eagles, although five-year permits have been available since 2009. That has put the companies at legal risk and has discouraged private investment in renewable energy.

It also has not helped eagles, because without permits companies are not required to take steps to reduce their impact on the birds or report when eagles are killed.

The wind energy industry has said the change mirrors permits already in place for endangered species, which are more at risk than bald and golden eagles. Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but are still protected under two federal laws.

The regulation published Friday was not subjected to a full environmental review because the administration classified it as an administrative change.

"The federal government didn't study the impacts of this rule change even though the (law) requires it," said Kelly Fuller, who formerly headed the wind campaign at the American Bird Conservancy. "Instead, the feds have decided to break the law and use eagles as lab rats."

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the new rule will enable it to better monitor the long-term environmental effects of renewable energy projects.

"Our goal is to ensure that the wind industry sites and operates projects in ways that best minimize and avoid impacts to eagles and other wildlife," the agency said in a statement.

Last month, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other birds at two wind farms in Wyoming, the first time a wind energy company had been prosecuted under a law protecting migratory birds.

A study by federal biologists in September found that wind farms since 2008 had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles, a number that the researchers said was likely underestimated. That did not include deaths at Altamont Pass, an area in Northern California where wind farms kill an estimated 60 eagles a year.

By 2030 there could be more than 100,000 wind turbines in the United States, and these could kill more than 1 million birds per year, according to the American Bird Conservatory.

It's unclear what toll, if any, wind energy companies are having on eagle populations locally or regionally. A recent assessment of the status of the golden eagle in the Western U.S. showed that populations have been decreasing in some areas but rising in others.

The Associated Press

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