Renewable energy and Wyoming jobs received a boost Wednesday as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the first 500 wind turbines for the Chokecherry Sierra Madre (CCSM) Wind Energy Project.
The BLM action followed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Record of Decision (ROD) indicating that it would issue an Eagle Take Permit for Power Company of Wyoming’s (PCW) Chokecherry and CCSM when final mitigation plans are provided. The Fish and Wildlife Service decision came after a thorough analysis of the potential impacts to eagles from the wind energy project.
The 500 turbines represent Phase 1 of a two-phase proposed project that would build up to 1,000 wind turbines on almost 220,000 acres south of Rawlins. According to the BLM, the project represents the largest proposed onshore wind energy facility in North America; when fully operational; the project will be capable of generating up to 3,000 megawatts of clean, renewable power, enough to power nearly one million homes.
The entire project is expected to support 1,200 jobs at peak construction, and is also expected to create more than 100 permanent positions in operations and maintenance. Phase I of the project is estimated to generate almost $200 million in property-tax revenue during construction and over the first 20 years of operation. PCW estimates Phase I will also contribute $116 million from sales taxes and $118 million from a state wind-electricity tax over 20 years.
The BLM issued the Final Environmental Assessment (EA) analyzing the potential impacts of constructing 500 wind turbines on mixed ownership land for public comment in March. The EA incorporates and builds on the analysis undertaken in a 2012 Final Environmental Impact Statement, which evaluated the potential impacts of the project as a whole. After considering public comments, the BLM prepared a Finding of No New Significant Impact (FONNSI) and Decision Record for this approval, both of which can be found at http://on.doi.gov/2ggwRi9.
The BLM administers approximately half of the land associated with the project site; the remainder of the site is made up of privately owned and state lands. Only a portion of the total land area would be used for or disturbed by the project. No ground-disturbing activities associated with the turbines can begin until the BLM issues a Right-of-Way grant and Notice to Proceed.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with administering the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which allows for limited take of eagles under certain conditions. The Service analyzed the impacts of potentially issuing such a permit using an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Final EIS (FEIS) for CCSM analyzed a potential range of project alternatives and accompanying mitigation actions to determine the impacts of permitting limited eagle take. The Service evaluated four alternatives, including issuing the permit as requested in the application, issuing a permit with different eagle mitigation requirements, issuing a permit for the project at a smaller scale, or not issuing the permit.
Through this analysis, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that it could issue eagle take permits for the project as requested, which included significant avoidance, minimization, and compensatory mitigation measures. Those permits would cover any unavoidable disturbance of eagles during construction as well as take of eagles during the development’s ongoing operation for a five-year period. The Service’s analysis indicated that it is likely that one to two bald eagles and 10-14 golden eagles per year would be harmed or killed by the CCSM project.
“Over 70 years ago, our nation made a clear statement about the importance of protecting eagles with the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act,” said the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Regional Director, Noreen Walsh. “As the federal agency charged with implementing that law, the decision the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is announcing today demonstrates that by working closely with industry, we can develop our nation’s wind resources in a way that conserves our extraordinary wildlife resources.”
Upon completion of final permit application requirements, PCW would be issued a “take” (disturb, injure or kill) permit that would cover the anticipated eagle impacts. Under federal regulations, compensatory mitigation is not required for bald eagles because their abundance can withstand the impacts of the project. However, any golden eagle taken must be compensated for to ensure golden eagle populations remain stable.
One current source of mortality for golden eagles is electrocution on power poles that are not constructed to bird-friendly standards. Electrocutions occur when eagles contact two energized points, or an energized point and a “path to ground.” Existing power poles that are not bird-friendly can be retrofitted to reduce these risks. As part of their project, PCW has committed to providing compensatory mitigation by reducing this ongoing source of mortality. By retrofitting existing power poles that pose an electrocution hazard to eagles, they can reduce the level of ongoing mortality in order to compensate for any mortality that may occur from their wind turbines. The amount of take that will be permitted is deliberately conservative, meaning that the compensatory mitigation measures required of the operator will likely exceed their impact, providing a net benefit to golden eagles.
The U.S. Secretary of the Interior approved the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision for the overall CCSM project in 2012. The 2012 EIS required additional reviews for specific components of the project including roads, associated infrastructure, and turbine construction. Since then, the infrastructure needs and turbine development have been analyzed under separate EAs. The infrastructure EA analyzed potential impacts from the site-specific plans including haul roads, a rail distribution facility, and rock quarry. No new or significant impacts were identified beyond those already analyzed in the project EIS. The Decision Record and FONNSI for the infrastructure EA were approved in 2014.
Since 2009, the BLM has approved 60 renewable energy projects on public lands, including 36 utility-scale solar facilities; 11 wind energy projects and 13 geothermal plants, with total capacity when completed to generate up to 15,567 megawatts (MW) of power
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