May 14, 2013

Wind farms get pass on eagle deaths

The Associated Press

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Solomon, a 14-year-old golden eagle, perches on a branch at the Sulphur Creek Nature Center on Thursday, May 9, 2013, in Hayward, Calif. According to keepers, a wind turbine near the Altamont Pass severed a portion of Solomon's left wing in 2000 leaving him unable to fly or survive in the wild. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year.

AP

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A golden eagle flies near a wind turbine on a wind farm owned by PacifiCorp near Glenrock, Wyo., Monday, May 6, 2013. At least 20 golden eagles have been found dead at the companies wind farms in Wyoming, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year. (AP Photo/Matt Young)

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The proposal, made at the urging of the wind-energy industry, would allow companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill a set number of bald or golden eagles. Previously, companies were only eligible for five-year permits.

In exchange for the longer timetable, companies agree that if they kill more eagles than allowed, the government could require them to make changes. But the administration recently said it would cap how much a company could be forced to spend on finding ways to reduce the number of eagles its facility is killing.

The Obama administration said the longer permit was needed to "facilitate responsible development of renewable energy" while "continuing to protect eagles."

A similar explanation was given when the Fish and Wildlife Service recently authorized the killing of a single California condor, an endangered species, by a proposed wind farm in California. It also authorized a real estate developer to disturb four birds for its project.

That's because without a long-term authorization to kill eagles, investors are less likely to finance an industry that's violating the law.

Typically, the government would be forced to study the environmental effects of such a regulation before implementing it. In this case, though, the Obama administration avoided a full review, saying the policy was nothing more than an "administrative change."

"It's basically guaranteeing a black box for 30 years, and they're saying 'trust us for oversight.' This is not the path forward," said Katie Umekubo, a renewable energy attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former lawyer for the Fish and Wildlife Service. In private meetings with industry and government leaders in recent months, environmental groups have argued that the 30-year permit needed an in-depth environmental review.

The tactics have created an unexpected rift between the administration and major environmental groups favoring green energy that, until the eagle rule, had often been on the same side as the wind industry.

Those conservation groups that have been critical of the administration's stance from the start, such as the American Bird Conservancy, have often been cut out of the behind-the-scenes discussions and struggled to obtain information on bird deaths at wind farms.

"There are no seats at the exclusive decision-making table for groups that want the wind industry to be held accountable for the birds it kills," said Kelly Fuller, who works on wind issues for the group.

The eagle rule is not the first time the administration has made concessions for the wind-energy industry.

Last year, over objections from some of its own wildlife investigators and biologists, the Interior Department updated its guidelines and provided more cover for wind companies that violate the law.

The administration and some environmentalists say that was the only way to exact some oversight over an industry that operates almost exclusively on private land and generates no pollution, and therefore is exposed to little environmental regulation.

Under both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the death of a single bird without a permit is illegal.

But under the Obama administration's new guidelines, wind-energy companies — and only wind-energy companies — are held to a different standard. Their facilities don't face additional scrutiny until they have a "significant adverse impact" on wildlife or habitat. But under both bird protection laws, any impact has to be addressed.

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Additional Photos

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Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

  


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