A House committee chairman from a coal-producing state backed away Wednesday from requiring regulations for the wind energy industry to protect birds and bats, rules the industry said would halt development of wind farms as an alternative to coal.
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahal, D-W.Va., had put into an energy bill a requirement that the Interior Department regulate the siting and operation of energy wind turbines to ensure the safety of wildlife.
His action unleashed intense lobbying by the wind industry and renewable energy advocates, who argued that such restrictions would stop wind farm development at a time when wind is viewed as the most viable renewable alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power for producing electricity.
As his committee began final crafting of the energy package Wednesday, Rahal relented and agreed to support, instead, a less-sweeping measure offered by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. It calls on the Interior Department to develop “guidelines” for protection of wildlife from wind turbines, not regulations.
“I think it was a good compromise. It will allow the development of wind and still allow for a process” to protect wildlife, Rahal said after his committee recessed for the day. A final vote on the energy package was expected Thursday.
This “will allow wind power to continue to thrive,” said Markey. Rahal said he expects Markey’s amendment to get final approval, although it must still go through a formal committee vote.
The turnaround also shows the increasing political clout of the wind industry, which includes such corporate giants as General Electric Co. The industry’s trade association has more than 1,000 members, compared to a few hundred five years ago.
Electricity from wind turbines serves some 3 million homes, although wind power still accounts for less than 1 percent of the total electricity produced. Coal is burned to produce more than half of the country’s electricity, and nuclear reactors account for about 20 percent.
As Congress prepares to consider legislation that would require utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, wind is viewed as increasingly critical and likely would be used to meet the largest portion of that mandate.
“We turned around what was a very bad provision,” said Jaime Steve, legislative affairs director for the American Wind Energy Association, referring to getting Rahal to back away from his original proposal. It would have required the Interior Department to develop regulations affecting surveys, siting, operation and monitoring standards for wind energy projects to determine their impact on migratory birds, bats and other wildlife.
The industry cited a National Academy of Sciences study that said wind turbines accounted for only three of every 100,000 bird deaths. Domestic cats kill 1,000 times as many birds as wind turbines, Steve said, citing another study.
The wind energy industry has been growing at more than 25 percent a year. It installed more than 2,400 megawatts of capacity last year with an expectation of 3,000 additional megawatts this year.
Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee attacked the broader energy legislation that the committee is expected to approved Thursday, saying it does nothing to produce more energy and, in fact, rolls back some measures approved by Congress two years ago that were aimed at streamlining the permitting process for oil and gas development on federal lands.
“I call this the national energy suicide bill,” declared Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the committee. “This bill does nothing for coal. It does nothing to get more natural gas or about our ability to produce any more oil on shore and off shore. It discourages it.”
Rahal said the legislation corrects some of the “excesses” given the oil and gas industry by Congress in 2005 when Republicans were in the majority.
By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press Writer
6 June 2007
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