Two recent meetings about the proposed Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind farm highlighted some of the issues that may be an impediment to getting the project off the ground.
On Monday, a public comment session held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Platte Valley Community Center in Saratoga brought local residents’ passions to the floor as the agency discussed the issue of eagle take permits that would allow for the killing or disturbance of eagles. Another meeting May 18 at Encampment Town Hall showed some of the political resistance to renewable energy projects in a state dominated by coal and petroleum production.
Environmental impacts issue of contention
On Monday, representatives of U.S. Fish and Wildlife held a public information session to discuss eagle take permits. An eagle take permit would allow the killing or disturbance of eagles in the wind farm by wind turbine blades. The information session had representatives from Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW). About 20 residents also attended.
At the meeting, the Fish and Wildlife Service presented four possible options for the outcome of PCW’s eagle take permit application.
The first option would grant two eagle take permits for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farms. According to Fish and Wildlife, permits could only be issued if the take permits did not negatively affect the long-term stability of the eagle population. For Golden Eagles, no permit could be issued unless PCW were to retrofit high-risk power poles to prevent predicted deaths of Golden Eagles. Under this scheme, the agency estimates the loss of 10 to 14 Golden Eagles per year, and one to two Bald Eagles.
The second possible option, according to Fish and Wildlife documents, would be the issue of permits with a different loss mitigation strategy, such as habitat and prey enhancement, or other conservation measures. Under this option, the eagle kill estimates are the same as the first option, the agency said.
A third option is issuing a permit only for the Sierra Madre portion of the project, which could be done if Fish and Wildlife determines that the Chokecherry site does not meet the regulatory criteria for an eagle take permit. The estimated eagle deaths under this option would be seven to ten Golden eagles per year, and one bald Eagle.
The Fish and Wildlife’s fourth option would be to not issue eagle take permits. If the agency did not issue the permits, PCW could be held criminally and civilly liable for any eagles killed by the wind farm operations. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act levies civil fines of up to $10,000 for killing an eagle, and a felony conviction could bring fines of $500,000 for a corporation or organization.
These options provided plenty of debate among members of the public in attendance, with some saying that the death of eagles and other avian species like bats and birds was a serious concern with the project.
One member of the public said he believed that any eagle losses were unacceptable and that no permit should be issued.
Others in attendance said that eagle losses were tragic, but that the economic benefits of the project and the rising specter of anthropogenic climate change meant that compromises would have to be made.
Economic Woes also cast some doubt on wind project
Last month, state lawmakers on the revenue committee proposed increasing the tax on wind power generation as a means to offset some of the state’s recent losses in revenue in the oil and gas as well as coal sectors.
The project—what would eventually be the largest wind farm in North America—is expected to contribute $106 million to state coffers and generate an estimated $123 million in tax revenue in Carbon County over the course of construction. But the new proposed taxes on wind power generation could threaten the project, according to PCW.
Kara Choquette, a spokesperson for PCW, told a group of Carbon County lawmakers at a May 18 meeting that while PCW was confident in getting all the needed permits, and was planning to begin construction at the end of this year, the revenue committee’s recent statements had raised new doubts about the project’s future.
“There’s a whole lot new uncertainty and new risk,” Choquette said. “It’s really hard to plan and decide how you will price your product, how you will get customers, if you don’t have the certainty of knowing what the business environment is.”
Bill Miller, President of PCW, said at the May 18 meeting that there is a perception among many lawmakers that wind power generators do not pay their fair share of taxes compared to other energy producers like coal and oil firms, but went on to say that wind producers pay more per megawatt-hour of energy produced in Wyoming than coal or gas energy producers.
According to documents provided by PCW, wind energy producers contribute $3.91 in taxes per megawatt-hour, while gas producers contribute $3.49 and coal producers contribute $2.69 or $1.77 per megawatt hour, depending on which type of coal is burnt.
Jerry Paxton, House District 47 representative (R-Wyo.), told lawmakers at the May meeting he supported the current tax rates on wind energy production, and would oppose any changes to those taxes.
“In our search for revenue streams to bolster the economy of Wyoming, they’re turning over every rock, and this is just one rock they’re turning over,” Paxton said. “I believe we have done what government is supposed to do, we have achieved equity so that all the megawatts of power going down the lines in Wyoming to other states are taxed at somewhere close to the same level.”
Paxton said regardless of personal feelings about wind energy versus other forms, it is imperative that Wyoming be economically competitive with other states that are racing to build out renewable energy production infrastructure.
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