WASHINGTON — The Interior Department issued a rule change to allow renewable energy producers lengthier permit periods under which they can “take” — kill, injure or disturb — bald and golden eagle populations.
Wind-energy producers used to be able to get five-year permits from the federal government that allowed the “taking” of these all-American birds during the course of production activities. Now, they’ll be able to get a permit good for up to 30 years.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called the news “appalling.”
“By now it’s no secret this administration will go to great lengths to tilt the scales to benefit the wind industry at great cost to taxpayers, and at the cost of killing a great symbol of freedom,” Alexander said.
Interior began its permitting program in 2009 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which authorizes the “programmatic take” of eagles, according to the department, “associated with, but not the purpose of, an otherwise lawful activity and does not have a long-term impact on the population.”
Interior said the five-year permit “does not reflect the actual operating parameters of most renewable energy projects or other similar long-term project operations,” and the 30-year permit has a review built in every five years. That review would include determining that a wind producer hasn’t exceeded its limits in the number of eagles they’re allowed to “take.” The government claims that the five-year reports of eagle deaths will increase transparency and accountability in the industry.
The new rules also allow the permit to be transferred to new owners taking over a renewable energy project. Permit prices will also go up.
“Renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation’s future, but it has to be done in the right way,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “The changes in this permitting program will help the renewable energy industry and others develop projects that can operate in the longer term, while ensuring bald and golden eagles continue to thrive for future generations.”
The final rule states “there are potential benefits to eagles from issuing permits in situations in which take is unlikely, because such ‘low-risk’ permits will require monitoring and reporting (although less than is required for typical long-term programmatic permits), providing us with additional data on eagle use of the project areas and potential impacts of the permitted activities.”
Comments submitted against the rule change note that there has been no long-term study on the effect of today’s wind farms on eagle populations, and the additional harm being allowed to eagles thanks to the administration’s drive to support renewable energy could put eagles back on the endangered species list.
The Interior Department replied that if that happens, energy producers can apply for an “incidental take” permit under the Endangered Species Act to continue their activities.
One of the first species to receive protection under the ESA, the bald eagle was removed from the list in 2007.
“It’s appalling that after bringing the American bald eagle back from the brink of extinction, today’s Interior Department announcement grants renewable energy projects what is essentially a federal hunting licenses to kill not only American bald eagles, but also golden eagles,” Alexander said.
“We need even treatment of the law for energy development, regardless of source, and this revised rule misses the mark by giving continued leniency to renewable energy projects, such as wind farms,” the senator added.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in its fiscal year 2013 budget justification that annual bird mortality from wind energy production is about 440,000, with the figure expected to exceed one million as more wind turbines are put in service.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said “permits to kill eagles just seems unpatriotic, and 30 years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate.”
“The administration has repeatedly prosecuted oil, gas, and other businesses for taking birds, but looks the other way when wind farms or other renewable energy companies do the exact same thing,” Vitter said. “There needs to be a balanced approach in protecting migratory birds, while also supporting domestic energy, and with this newest decision, the administration has failed to achieve that.”
Last week, the Justice Department announced a $1 million plea agreement with Duke Energy for killing more than a dozen federally protected eagles and more than 100 other protected birds at two of the company’s wind farms in Wyoming. It marked the first time the DOJ has ever prosecuted a producer of wind energy under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law under which oil and gas companies and utility companies that operate power lines have been charged many times.
In January, Alexander and Vitter wrote the DOJ to raise concern about a wind energy farm in southeastern Minnesota that applied for a “take” permit for its project with the potential to kill between eight and fifteen bald eagles each year.
The Justice Department waited until its announcement about the settlement with Duke Energy to even respond to the senators’ letter.
“We definitely don’t want to see any sort of energy providers killing federally protected birds indiscriminately, but we also don’t want to see politically motivated actions by DOJ,” Vitter said before Thanksgiving. “The instances of wind energy’s favoritism have been so egregious under this administration, and DOJ’s settlement and response still don’t explain the administration’s obvious bias.”
At least one environmental group is up in arms about the rule change.
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “It’s outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the bald eagle.”
“Audubon will continue to look for reasonable, thoughtful partners to wean America off fossil fuels because that should be everyone’s highest priority,” Yarnold added. “We have no choice but to challenge this decision, and all options are on the table.”