For once, Republican Sen. David Vitter and the green community are birds of a feather.
Wildlife groups and the Senate GOP’s top environmental lawmaker are both irate over a new Interior Department rule allowing 30-year permits for wind farms to accidentally kill or injure bald and golden eagles. The rule was to be published in Monday’s Federal Register.
The Obama administration and the wind industry say the change is needed because the previous five-year maximum is impractical for renewable energy projects that last for decades. But environmentalists say the rule wrongly pits wildlife and green energy against each other, while GOP critics like Vitter say it follows a pattern of the administration’s favoritism toward wind power.
It’s baldly un-American, Vitter said Friday.
“Permits to kill eagles just seem unpatriotic, and 30 years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate,” said the Louisiana senator, who is the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of wind.
Sounding a similar theme, National Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold said it’s “outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the bald eagle.” He indicated his group may sue the administration.
The rule also drew criticism from Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who said it “sets up a false choice that we intend to fight to reverse.”
“This rule could lead to many unnecessary deaths of eagles. And that’s a wrong-headed approach,” she said. “We can, and must, protect wildlife as we promote clean, renewable energy. The Fish and Wildlife Service missed an opportunity to issue a rule that would do just that.”
Interior and the wind industry both defend the rule, saying it will promote bird conservation while giving needed certainty to wind projects. Under the rule, wind farms must take steps to prevent bird deaths, and the department will work with the wind industry on “advanced conservation practices” if deaths or injuries occur.
“Renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation’s future, but it has to be done in the right way,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “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 American Wind Energy Association says that “only a handful” of bald eagles have been killed by turbines and that about 2 percent of human-caused golden eagle deaths are from wind projects. It adds that “as a non-polluting energy source, wind energy is one of the most environmentally benign ways to generate electricity.”
Deaths of birds and bats have been a big problem for some wind projects, including a massive, decades-old wind farm near San Francisco that has been blamed for killing tens of thousands of birds such as golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and other species. But the industry says modern practices and windmill designs greatly reduce the risk – for example, the rotors spin more slowly and the turbines’ smooth, monopole bases don’t offer birds a place to nest.
Supporters of the rule have said that while there are no definitive data on bird deaths across the U.S., indications are that far more birds die from run-ins with glass-faced buildings and house cats than from wind power.
National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Schweiger argued that extending the permits to 30 years doesn’t do anything to protect eagles. The American Bird Conservancy, a longtime critic of wind power’s threat to birds and bats, says that between the new rule and the recent boom in wind installations, eagles will have to survive “a brutal ‘one-two’ punch.”
Bald and golden eagles are not listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act but are protected under separate laws.
As wind power has spread, green groups and Republican critics of wind power have become wary bedfellows. But while Vitter and the conservationists are flocking together for the moment, they ultimately have different motivations and goals.
Vitter has long accused the administration of playing favorites by promoting subsidies for wind power, supporting offshore wind farms while hampering oil and gas lease sales, and looking the other way when it comes to bird deaths from turbine blades but going after oil and gas offenders.
The Obama administration has found some inoculation against the last charge. In November, the Justice Department struck a plea bargain with a company over the deaths of eagles and other birds at two wind sites. That was the first-ever completed legal action against wind power over bird deaths.
The Justice Department defends its record and has noted that the George W. Bush administration also prosecuted oil and gas companies for killing birds.
Most environmental groups, meanwhile, are focused on combating climate change in addition to protecting wildlife – but finding a middle road can be tricky.
“Wind-energy projects, if properly sited and carefully operated, are a critical part of the solution,” Schweiger said. But there is “simply no reason to issue a one-sided permitting rule with such inadequate protections for bald and golden eagles.”
Bobby McEnaney, senior deputy director of the NRDC’s Western Lands and Renewable Energy Program, said Interior should have never moved forward with a rule because information on how eagles and wind projects interact is still “very much in its infancy.” The administration noted the dearth of information in its final rule.
McEnaney added that transparency provisions in the revised rule won’t provide enough information for the public to properly evaluate whether the permitting program is succeeding.
It’s not yet clear how opponents of the newly lengthened permits might fare in court.
There have been some recent disputes involving Native American tribes – like an ongoing lawsuit between Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a permit to kill bald eagles for religious ceremonies. But there doesn’t appear to be much precedent for this rule when it comes to environmental concerns.
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