WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is revising a federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to operate high-speed turbines for up to 30 years, even if means killing or injuring thousands of federally protected bald and golden eagles.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, wind companies and other power providers could kill or injure up to 4,200 bald eagles a year without penalty – nearly four times the current limit. Golden eagles could only be killed if companies take steps to minimize the losses, for instance, by retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the proposal will “provide a path forward” for maintaining eagle populations while also spurring development of a pollution-free energy source that’s intended to ease global warming, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan.
Ashe said the 162-page proposal would protect eagles and at the same time “help the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels” such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming.
“There’s a lot of good news in here,” Ashe said in an interview, calling the plan “a great tool to work with to further conservation of two iconic species.”
The proposal sets objectives for eagle management, addresses how bird populations will be monitored and provides a framework for how the permitting system fits within the agency’s overall eagle management, Ashe said.
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Blades can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the United States, and 40,000 golden eagles.
It’s unclear what toll wind energy companies are having on eagle populations, although Ashe said as many 500 golden eagles a year are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks. Thousands more are killed by gunshots and poisonings.
Since 2013, two golden eagle deaths have been reported at the Spring Valley Wind Energy facility, a wind farm about 260 miles northeast of Las Vegas that sells power to NV Energy.
Concerns over potential eagle deaths have stoked opposition to a similar wind-energy development proposed near Searchlight, leading to additional regulatory review of the project.
Reporting of eagle mortality is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.
Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period. Officials hope to issue a final rule this fall.
The plan was developed after a federal judge in California blocked a 2013 rule that gave wind energy companies a 30-year pass to kill bald and golden eagles.
U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled last August that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow environmental procedural requirements in issuing the 2013 directive. The agency had classified its action as an administrative change from a 2009 rule, excluding it from a full environmental review.
The agency adopted the 30-year rule as a way to encourage the development of wind energy, a key source of renewable power that has nearly tripled in output since 2009. A previous rule allowed wind farms to apply for renewable five-year permits.
Golden and bald eagles are not endangered species but are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs without a permit.
The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they kill.
David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, said wind power helps conserve eagles by mitigating climate change, a major threat to the birds. “While unintentional take of eagles can occur from wind energy production, it is relatively uncommon and our industry does more than any other to find ways to reduce that small impact,” Ward said.
Michael Hutchens of the American Bird Conservancy said that unless the plan requires better tracking of bird deaths at or near wind turbines it is unlikely to succeed. Hutchens, whose group filed a lawsuit challenging the 2013 eagle plan, said officials must ensure that bird-death reporting is done by independent observers rather than by the industry, which he said treats such data as “trade secrets.”
“Mortality data should be transparent and open to the public,” Hutchens said. The group also is concerned that wind farms are not sited in migratory paths of eagles, he said.
Under the new proposal, companies would pay a $36,000 fee for a long-term permit allowing them to kill or injure eagles. Companies would have to commit to take additional measures if they kill or injure more eagles than estimated, or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.
Companies would be charged a $15,000 administrative fee every five years for long-term permits. The fees would cover costs to the Fish and Wildlife Service of conducting five-year evaluations and developing modifications, the agency said.
Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.