In one of the nation’s biggest clashes between energy production and wildlife interests, the Obama Administration has come down on industry’s side by going forward with a federal rule that allows wind-turbine operators to go 30 years without proving at length that their giant machines aren’t killing bald eagles and golden eagles. That decision has potential ramifications for the Great Lakes region because of its enormous contributions to eagle recovery efforts.
Until the rule was finalized earlier this month, operators installing machines close to known eagle populations — defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as occupied nests within 43 miles for bald eagles and within 140 miles for golden eagles — had to obtain new permits once every five years.
The service said in a report last April that wind turbines that destroy 5 percent or more of any local population would not likely be tolerated under any circumstances, whether or not modifications are made. Losses of even 1 percent of local populations from wind turbines could result in sanctions under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
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Now, operators can hold permits without extensive challenges for 30 years, though they still will be expected to report any problems and check in with the Fish and Wildlife Service once every five years to provide status updates.
Mark Shieldcastle, who for years led Ohio’s eagle-recovery efforts for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the distinction may appear subtle, but it has greatly loosened up the regulatory landscape for the wind industry.
Most turbines are not expected to remain in operation more than 30 years, meaning they’ll be at the end of their operational lives by the time they must undergo extensive reviews.
“If not reverse, it could definitely put a damper on recovery efforts,” said Mr. Shieldcastle, now the research director of the nonprofit Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
Ohio ranks fourth in the Great Lakes region for bald eagle populations behind Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Great Lakes region is one of the biggest for eagles outside of Alaska. Golden eagles, which are much larger, can be found throughout much of North America, Asia, northern Africa, and Europe, but in the eastern United States they are less common than bald eagles.
Ohio DNR states on its Web site that it found about 190 bald eagle nesting pairs in Ohio this year, a slight decrease from the 2012 estimate of 210. But the eagles, after nearly becoming extinct from exposure to the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, were removed from the list of endangered species in 2007, representing one of the nation’s biggest success stories under the landmark 1973 Endangered Species Act that now influences many planning and development rules for construction.
Although the bald eagle has spread across much of Ohio, the state DNR said the marsh region of western Lake Erie continues to be its “stronghold.”
Western Lake Erie sits in the heart of major North American bird flyways. It is one of the nation’s battlegrounds in ongoing debates over the extent of turbines’ hazard to many bird and bat species.
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry’s Washington-based trade group, said it’s disingenuous for wildlife groups to lash out against the rule. He said the association considers climate change a much bigger threat to birds than wind turbines.
‘A positive effect’
“I personally think there will be a positive effect for eagles. This is intended to provide conservation benefit,” Mr. Anderson said.
The wind industry requested the rule change to help boost investor confidence in wind farms.
“Five-year permits with uncertainties for renewal just won’t work,” Mr. Anderson said.
Although critics describe research as inconclusive, Mr. Anderson said the wind industry estimates as few as 15 eagle deaths a year are attributed to wind turbines outside the Altamont Pass wind farm in northern California, one of the nation’s first wind farms. Altamont Pass was singled out in a 2005 Government Accountability Office report as an example of poor siting. It was developed in a major flyway.
Though established in 2009, the five-year permitting program was originated during the latter stages of George W. Bush’s presidency. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans for it in 2007, Mr. Anderson said.
He considers the expanded rule change for 30-year permits “a further refinement” of what began six years ago, adding there will still be sufficient checks and balances.
Mr. Shieldcastle doesn’t agree, nor do many wildlife groups.
Groups such as the Black Swamp Bird Observatory have been fighting for years not only to keep wind farms away from bird flyways but also away from the Lake Erie shoreline. Many species of birds use the shoreline and the Lake Erie islands to migrate.
Their goal is to prohibit wind turbines from going up within 3 miles of the shoreline on either land or water.
Mr. Shieldcastle said the most likely scenario is that the rule change will entice smaller projects, such as one-turbine or two-turbine projects and machines that are shorter than the massive 1.7-megawatt, commercial-scale giants. Then, about a decade from now — when there are a smattering of such small projects — the major wind companies likely would move in, citing data from their smaller counterparts to claim their impacts will be minimal, he said.
“I think the potential of being a chronic problem to the bald eagle population is there. If left unchecked, we’re going to see a proliferation of these things over the next decade,” Mr. Shieldcastle said.
Many of the smaller and midsized machines produce less than 1 megawatt. A megawatt is roughly the amount of electricity necessary to power 1,000 homes.
Federal law does not require environmental-impact statements for projects in which fewer than 50 megawatts are produced. The Ohio Power Siting Board, following Minnesota’s lead, has superseded federal law by requiring all projects of 5 megawatts or more to have those reviews.
Kelly Fuller, former head of the American Bird Conservancy’s wind campaign, said the Obama Administration has “decided to break the law and use eagles as lab rats.”
The Humane Society of the United States has weighed in too.
“We realize that all energy production systems come with their ecological and animal welfare costs, but that doesn’t mean we should exempt those who cause acute impacts from any responsibility or mitigation requirements,” said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s president and chief executive officer.
“Extending take permits for 30 years prevents the administration from fully considering the impact of wind farms on eagles and is a blow to the protection of raptors and so many other types of birds,” Mr. Pacelle said.
Mr. Anderson disagreed.
“This is not a program to kill eagles,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will continue to monitor long-term environmental impacts and do what it takes to minimize impacts to eagles and other wildlife.
A statement posted on its Web site said the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates “that wind turbines may kill a half million birds a year.”
It did not state how many of them are eagles, but it acknowledged there are risks associated with them.
“Not all bird species are equally vulnerable to wind turbines,” according to an agency fact sheet. “Eagles appear to be particularly susceptible. Large numbers of golden eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the western states. However, bald eagles have also been killed, although not in the numbers seen in the West."
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.