Wildlife conservationists are battling an Obama administration rule that would give wind energy companies lengthy permits for wind farms that end up killing bald and golden eagles.
Hundreds of thousands of birds are killed every year after they fly into gigantic wind turbine blades.
It’s unclear how many of them are eagles, but wildlife groups say that birds of prey on the lookout for food often ignore the blades.
Existing permits allow green energy companies to put up wind farms as long as the Fish and Wildlife Service declares they use “advanced conservation practices” to protect birds. The Obama administration is considering a rule that would extend the permits from five to 30 years.
Wildlife groups met with White House officials in July and pressed them to not sign off on the rules, which the green energy industry has lobbied for furiously.
Green energy groups have also met with the White House in recent weeks to press their case.
A decision could be coming soon. The White House received the rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service in April, for what was supposed to be a 90-day review. Wildlife groups say the 30-year permit is far too long, even if the eagle deaths are unintentional.
They argue the administration should give a more comprehensive review of the effects massive wind farms have on the environment, including birds and other wildlife. Science on how to prevent eagle deaths and injuries has not been conclusive, the groups say, so the government should not give wind farms a 30-year pass for eagle killings — known as “takings.”
“The question is what is the science telling us about how to prevent eagle takings, and we’re still waiting for the science to tell us how that works,” said Julie Falkner, the Defenders of Wildlife’s senior director of renewable energy programs.
She added that the permitting system in general needed to be better examined, and that the timeframe should not be adjusted on its own.
The permits are available for many different industries, but wind energy companies specifically pushed for the extended timeframe when the permits were first unveiled in 2009.
President Obama’s administration has sought to bolster investments in wind and other renewable energy sources, and the new rules would make it easier to build wind farms by providing more regulatory certainty.
Under his administration, the wind energy sector has grown by about 30 percent each year. The Fish and Wildlife Service argued when it proposed the rule that the longer permits will help a growing industry while protecting wildlife.
“This change will facilitate the responsible development of renewable energy and other projects designed to operate for many decades, while continuing to protect eagles consistent with statutory mandates,” it said.
Wind energy proponents deny that the longer permits give energy firms a free pass. They will have to meet additional measures to protect birds, and the permits could be updated to account for new science or if more eagles are killed than expected.
“This isn’t just, ‘Hey here’s a 30-year permit and go off and have at it,'” said John Anderson, the director of policy with the American Wind Energy Association. “It’s a very contemplative process that is based on conservation of the species with a strong focus on conservation measures that will ensure stable or increasing eagle populations nationally.”
Similar permits exist that allow for the “incidental” death or disturbance of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. Those permits vary in length but can last for decades.
“We really saw this as bringing the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act permitting into consistency with the Endangered Species Act, which by its very nature is addressing species that are far more imperiled than the eagles,” said Anderson.
The bald eagle was considered endangered for decades but was removed from the list in 2007 because the species had rebounded. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act protects the birds, which have naturally low reproduction rates, regardless of whether they are endangered.
The wind power industry also argues that only 2 percent of documented golden eagle deaths are caused by wind farms each year. Newer wind turbines are designed not to encourage birds to perch on them.
Finally, they contend that the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t wait forever to finalize their rules.
“There’s always going to be people that want more science,” said Anderson. “At some point you need to take the best available science and make reasoned decisions.”