A federal appeals court has dealt a serious blow to an already-struggling wind energy project in Oregon’s Harney County that would give local ranchers an economic boost.
Though the 100-megawatt wind energy project would have been built on private ranchland, the 12-mile transmission line necessary to connect turbines with the power grid would have to cross public property.
That triggered an environmental analysis that has now been deemed unlawful by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, largely due to a wintertime sighting of sage grouse in the area.
Approval for the project was originally granted by U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2011, but the litigation by environmental groups and the dropping price of renewable energy have delayed installation of the wind turbines indefinitely.
Due to the uncertainty caused by the lawsuit, filed by the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland, a power-buying agreement secured by project developer Columbia Energy Partners was canceled.
The proposal now has another impediment to overcome due to the 9th Circuit ruling, which found that BLM failed to properly examine the impact on sage grouse, a former candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.
Proponents of the wind project initially prevailed in court when U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled in 2013 that BLM had complied with the National Environmental Policy Act in assessing its environmental effects.
The 9th Circuit has reversed that decision, holding that BLM wrongly concluded the wind turbine site wouldn’t be occupied by the sage grouse over winter.
Contrary to BLM’s extrapolation, the “wind-swept character” of the site that “makes it ideal for wind-energy generation” also indicated it can be used by the bird because “snow there may be blown off sagebrush and exposed for grouse to eat,” the ruling said.
A sighting of sage grouse near the site in February undermines the agency’s assumption that the area was too snowy to provide habitat for the bird, the appellate court found.
“And with the impacts on sage grouse not properly established, the BLM did not know what impacts to mitigate, or whether the mitigation proposed would be adequate to offset damage to wintering sage grouse,” the opinion said.
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