In a move the American Bird Conservation decried as “irresponsible,” the U.S. Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service on April 12 proposed revising regulations under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to facilitate the development of wind projects by extending permits for the unintended “take” of eagles from five to 30 years.
The proposed changes, if approved, would amend permit regulations finalized in September 2009 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act for the take of eagles that may occur as the unintended result of wind energy projects and other activities. Since publication of the 2009 rule, it has become “evident that the 5-year term limit on permits did not correspond to the time frame of projects operating over the long-term and was insufficient to enable project proponents to secure the funding, lease agreements, and other necessary assurances to move forward with projects,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a news release.
“It is simply irresponsible of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose granting 30-year take permits for birds such as eagles, which have populations that are still in a precarious state,” Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy, said in a news release. “ABC supports wind power when it is bird-smart, but this proposed rule change will lead to more dead eagles, more costly lawsuits, and more Americans who will wonder why the wind industry keeps getting a free pass to kill some of our nation’s most iconic birds.”
But John Anderson, American Wind Energy Association director of siting policy, disagreed. “It’s not a free pass to kill eagles,” he said. “This proposal provides the long-term surety you need from a business perspective that’s consistent with existing environmental conservation laws and, frankly, it’s better for the resource itself.”
Currently, wind energy companies and other businesses can apply to the Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit that allows them to kill limited numbers of eagles as part of their operations if they commit to a series of compensatory actions to offset this damage, Fuller noted. These “programmatic incidental take permits” must be renewed every five years.
“However, at the request of the wind energy industry, FWS has now proposed making the permits good for 30 years,” Fuller argued. “Just three years ago, the FWS concluded in a published rulemaking that they shouldn’t grant permits for longer than five years ‘because factors may change over a longer period of time such that a take authorized much earlier would later be incompatible with the preservation of the bald eagle or the golden eagle.’ The underlying science has not changed, and there is no proven method for fixing a wind farm so that it no longer kills eagles, short of turning off the turbines.”
Anderson explained that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes are the result of collaboration between conservation groups and the wind energy industry. AWEA filed comments regarding the permit’s renewal period with the Fish and Wildlife Service after it released eagle conservation guidance in 2011. He said the Endangered Species Act allows for long-term permitting, and the shorter-term five-year permits were making project financing difficult for wind developers.
“Where I think the ABC is completely off target is this idea that [the change] is going to allow for more eagle takes and that they essentially make it sound as if once the service issues this permit you never have to deal with them again,” he said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the proposed changes will help facilitate the “responsible development” of renewable energy and other projects, while conserving bald and golden eagles by requiring key conservation and monitoring measures to be implemented. “We’ve worked hard with our partners to protect eagle populations nationwide, and will make sure they continue to thrive,” he said.
The proposed rule also would amend the schedule of permit fees by increasing the fees for programmatic eagle take permits to reflect the increased cost to the Fish and Wildlife Service of developing adaptive mitigation measures and monitoring the effectiveness of the terms and conditions over the life of the permit, the agency noted. For programmatic permits with tenures of five years, the maximum period allowed under current regulations, the permit application processing fee would be increased to $36,000.
In addition, the regulations propose an “administration fee” linked to the duration of the permits to allow the agency to recover costs for monitoring and working with permittees over the life of the permits. The proposed administration fee ranges from $2,600 for permits with tenures of five years or less to $15,600 for 30-year permits, the agency said. The regulations propose a reduced application processing fee of $5,000 for permit applications for small wind projects and other activities that are not expected to have significant effects on eagles.
“FWS says that it has relatively little information about the impacts of wind energy on eagles, and yet, here they are proposing to extend the permit time for wind companies to kill them from five to 30 years, without having done the requisite environmental impact studies on the species,” Fuller charged. “Conversely, FWS has provided pages of analysis of the potential financial impacts on industry by granting them three decades worth of legal cover to kill eagles.”
“This proposed rule is yet another example of the Interior Department’s misplaced priority in promoting one energy production method at the avoidable expense of our nation’s birds, bats, and other wildlife,” Fuller added. “We hope the American public loudly protests this move to give irresponsible wind developers a free pass to kill two of our most inspiring birds – bald and golden eagles.”
The DOI and Fish and Wildlife Service recently released voluntary wind siting guidelines for developers with the caveat that developers who follow the guidelines will likely stay off the agencies’ radar for enforcement actions. Anderson said the proposed permitting changes would complement the voluntary guidelines. “They really are complementary, and both the wind industry and conservation community worked side by side with the [Fish and Wildlife Service] to come up with a consistent approach,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the proposed rule until May 14.
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