The Obama administration is gambling “recklessly” with America’s bald and golden eagles.
That’s the claim of the American Bird Conservancy, which on Thursday announced its intent to sue the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the agencies’ plan to grant wind-energy companies permits to kill eagles for up to 30 years.
The pending lawsuit marks a turning point in the deployment of “green” energy. For years, environmental groups have been nearly uniform in their support for renewable-energy projects. But now, some environmental groups are realizing that the land-devouring sprawl that accompanies wind-energy development isn’t beneficial to wildlife. Furthermore, they are realizing that, by trying to placate the wind-energy lobby, the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service are subverting federal law. In the letter notifying the government of the American Bird Conservancy’s intent to sue, its lawyers, Eric Glitzenstein and William S. Eubanks, claim that in the two agencies’ move to change the rules protecting eagles, they violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The letter says the rule change “is a glaring example of an agency action that gambles recklessly with the fate of the nation’s bald and golden eagle populations.” It continues, saying that the rule to increase the length of eagle-kill permits from five years to 30 years “was adopted in patent violation of federal environmental law.”
Dozens of environmental groups opposed the Interior Department’s proposal to give the wind industry 30-year eagle-kill permits. Last December, when the agency announced that it would go ahead with the three-decade allowances, the National Audubon Society’s president and CEO, David Yarnold, reacted with fury. “Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” he said. Yarnold called it “outrageous” that “the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the Bald Eagle.”
The pending litigation also exposes, yet again, the legal double standard that exists with regard to enforcement of two of America’s oldest wildlife-protection laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (enacted in 1918) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (enacted in 1940). Over the past few decades, the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service have brought hundreds of suits against the oil and gas industry, as well as the electric-utility sector, for unauthorized bird kills.
Meanwhile, despite widespread evidence of bird kills by wind turbines, those agencies have brought only one enforcement action against the wind industry. That move, which came last November, led Duke Energy to pay $1 million to settle criminal charges related to bird kills at two Wyoming wind projects. The Duke facility had killed some 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds.
How many birds are being killed by wind turbines?
In March 2013, a peer-reviewed study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimated that in 2012 alone, wind turbines killed 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds. Those bird kills included 83,000 raptors.
In September 2013, some of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s top raptor biologists reported that the documented number of eagles being killed by wind turbines has increased dramatically over the last few years, going from two in 2007 to 24 in 2011. In all, the biologists found that wind turbines have killed some 85 eagles since 1997. And Joel Pagel, the lead author of the report, told me that that the eagle-kill figures they used are “an absolute minimum.” Among the carcasses: six bald eagles.
Pagel’s study was published just five months after the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report that said flatly: “There are no conservation measures that have been scientifically shown to reduce eagle disturbance and blade-strike mortality at wind projects.”
The Pagel study is key because it shows that as more wind projects have been built, more birds have been killed. In 2007, the U.S. had about 17,000 megawatts of installed capacity. By 2011, that figure had nearly tripled, to about 47,000 megawatts. Over that time period, the number of documented eagle kills increased by a factor of twelve.
Furthermore, when I interviewed Pagel by phone last September, shortly after his report was published in the Journal of Raptor Research, he told me that since he completed his report, he and his colleagues have documented additional eagle kills by wind turbines in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota. Pagel refused to say how many additional eagle kills they had confirmed, but he said, “It’s quite a few.” He went on to say that there are now “14 states where eagles have been killed” by wind turbines. “That’s a very large geographical area,” he said, adding that more than half of the eagle carcasses “were found incidentally,” and that there were “no systematic surveys” of the wind projects by people who had been trained to look for dead birds.
On Thursday afternoon, Robert Johns, the director of public relations at the American Bird Conservancy, told me that the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service have become too deferential to the wind industry. “Instead of regulating the wind industry they’ve given them optional voluntary guidelines. Everyone else is regulated.” The wind industry, Johns continued, wants more taxpayer subsidies, and, at the same time, the Obama administration wants to give the industry “the most egregious get-out-of-jail-free permit we’ve every seen.” Extending the permits to 30 years, he said, “is untenable. We think it’s ridiculous.”
To be clear, claiming intent to sue, as the American Bird Conservancy has done, doesn’t guarantee that a lawsuit will actually be filed. And if a lawsuit is filed, there are no guarantees that the plaintiffs will prevail. But a change is in the air. America’s biggest environmental groups are no longer toeing the line when it comes to wind energy. The National Audubon Society has indicated it may file its own legal challenge to the 30-year eagle-kill permits.
Regardless of the impact on wildlife, the wind industry is still eager to feed at the federal trough at the expense of taxpayers. The American Wind Energy Association is, once again, working the halls of Congress in an effort to extend the production tax credit, the lucrative subsidy that is driving wind-turbine deployment. In early 2013, after a lengthy battle, that subsidy was extended for one year at a cost to taxpayers of $12 billion.
The Joint Tax Committee has estimated that another one-year extension of the subsidy will cost taxpayers an additional $6.1 billion. And the wind lobby appears to be getting its way. On April 3, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that will allow wind-energy developers to qualify for the tax credit if they start construction by the end of 2015.
Thus, at the very same time that the federal government is facing litigation over the wind industry’s killing of some of our most iconic wildlife, members of the U.S. Senate want to give that same industry more taxpayer dollars.
The great comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.”
I know just how she feels.
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