The Obama administration has proposed a new rule that would allow wind farms, transmission lines and other energy projects to obtain permits to disturb or kill eagles for up to 30 years rather than the current five-year term.
The proposal, which was proposed late last week, is aimed at providing a long life span for wind farms and ensuring projects can secure financing, among other reasons, the Interior Department said.
The department also proposed a significant hike in fees to process and administer eagle permits.
The new rule would amend regulations established in 2009 that allow developers to obtain five-year permits to “take” a certain number of bald and golden eagles if projects are otherwise lawful and the take is unavoidable even after strict conservation steps are taken, among other criteria.
So far, one wind farm has applied for a permit, drawing mixed reviews from conservation groups (E&ENews PM, Jan. 4).
“These 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,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement. “We are committed to monitoring the impact of projects on eagle populations over the life of the permits to ensure these measures are effective.”
The agency said permits will require adaptive management measures that would trigger additional mitigation if impacts to eagles exceed expectations or if new scientific information suggests additional protection is necessary, according to the agency’s proposal.
The agency may also amend programmatic permits to safeguard eagle populations or revoke permits if the activity is not compatible with eagle preservation.
“Monitoring and reporting by the permittee will be critically important for assessing impacts to eagles,” the agency said. “For example, we have relatively little information on the impacts of wind energy on eagles.”
The agency also proposed a significant increase in the cost to process permits – from $1,000 to up to $36,000 – to help defray the cost of developing adaptive mitigation measures and monitoring permit effectiveness. In addition, the agency proposed a new administrative fee ranging from $2,600 for five-year permits to $15,600 for 30-year permits.
“Feedback from developers indicates that these permit fees are considered a small part of the large investments of most projects requiring programmatic permits.” said Jerome Ford, FWS’s assistant director for migratory birds.
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said extending take permits to 30 years would provide greater certainty to investors and allow regulators to take a more holistic view of a project’s impact.
“For the permits to be voided after that five-year period really is not something that works from a business perspective,” he said. “It’s very difficult to finance a 30-year project with the uncertainty that you would not have long-term permitting.”
Anderson said AWEA requested the new rule as part of its comments to FWS early last year. Wildlife concerns have been exaggerated, he said.
“There will be an adaptive management process whereby if you’re seeing impacts in excess of what we expected, there will be a ramp-up of additional mitigation measures,” Anderson said. “So there’s lots of belts and suspenders built into this process that will provide a good level of protection for the species.”
But environmental groups criticized the rule, arguing there is a dearth of scientific data on eagle populations and no proven tools to mitigate impacts. The birds’ vulnerability to wind energy development is also poorly understood, a fact FWS appeared to acknowledge in its proposed rule, critics note.
“We strongly support adaptive management, but you have to have information to make the right decisions in terms of changes to management over time,” said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife. “Given all of the information gaps on golden eagles, 30 years is simply too long a time for a permit.”
Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy, said the proposed rule “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.”
The group accused FWS of contradicting its own published rulemaking nearly three years ago that warned against granting permits for more 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.”
Fuller said the underlying science has not changed and there is no proven method of mitigating impacts to eagles once a project has been built.
The unauthorized killing or disturbing of bald and golden eagles is illegal under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, though critics say enforcement of the law is lax.
FWS is accepting comments on its new 30-year permitting rule until July 12. It will accept comments on the new permitting fees until May 14.
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