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Citing wildlife impacts, North Dakota regulators deny siting permit for Burke County wind farm

BISMARCK – In what one commissioner called a “historic” decision, North Dakota utility regulators denied a siting permit for a wind farm in the state’s northwest corner following opposition from state and federal wildlife agencies Wednesday, June 12.

Public Service Commissioners unanimously rejected NextEra Energy’s application for siting permit, the first time they remembered doing so for an energy facility given that regulators and project developers typically work out issues before a final decision is made.

NextEra sought to build a 200-megawatt wind farm in Burke County north of Powers Lake. The 23,000-acre facility would have consisted of up to 76 turbines.

Regulatory filings showed federal and state agencies charged with protecting wildlife have long been concerned with the proposed wind farm’s location. A North Dakota Game and Fish Department official said upon first hearing about the project in 2016, agency staff indicated the developer “could not have picked a worse spot in the state.”

In a letter dated March 6, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service welcomed NextEra’s moves to reduce the project size and contract from a grassland-rich area but ultimately recommended against developing in the proposed area. It noted that a number of bald and golden eagles were observed in that location, which “encompasses a high concentration of significant, relatively rare, high quality breeding waterfowl habitat in North Dakota that also supports high numbers of other wildlife species.”

Though developers proposed measures to mitigate impacts to wildlife, commissioners found the project would have had an unacceptable level of “adverse effects” on animal health and safety.

In its order, the three-member, all-Republican commission also said the project would have had “adverse impacts” on wetlands, which its rules protect from energy facilities unless the applicant shows there’s no reasonable alternative. Project developers declined to move to another site “because it would have negatively impacted the efficiency of the wind resource by at least 10 percent,” the order said.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak acknowledged their vote against the wind farm may be frustrating for the company and participating landowners but she said the decision was “firmly grounded in the law.”

“I just firmly believe that this is the right decision based on the evidence of the case, that the company did not meet its burden of proof to show that this project has minimal impact,” she said.

NextEra did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Tammy Ibach, director of North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, expressed disappointment for landowners who could have seen a new income stream. She called the PSC’s decision a “loss” for private property rights.