Since U.S. Fish and Wildlife researchers released a study this month announcing that at least 85 eagles have died in collisions with wind turbines since 1997 in 10 states, discussion has heated around a federal rule change that would extend eagle casualty permits to last up to 30 years. The new rule would mean wind developers wouldn’t have to renew their “take” permits every five years.
Conservationists worry that the proposal would encourage further wind farm development that threatens wildlife, such as golden and bald eagles in the West. By lengthening permit duration to three decades, wind farms would have an easier time getting financial backing, paving the way for more industry growth.
“Having a five-year permit, particularly one with language that there was no guarantee for renewal, had a chilling effect on long-term financing,” says John Anderson, director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. Anderson and other wind advocates say that in order for wind energy to truly succeed, there needs to be more certainty around take permits and the potential for additional mitigation requirements years later.
Giving the industry that certainty, says David Cottingham, a senior advisor to the Fish and Wildlife Service director, would encourage more companies to work with FWS in mitigating negative impacts on wildlife. Cottingham says that because of how long the permitting process can take and how unreliable a five-year plan is for a facility with a 20- to 30-year life span, some developers build without eagle permits, which isn’t illegal, just risky. If a wind turbine were to take out an eagle with the permit, the facility would have violated federal law and be subject to prosecution.
Yet many wildlife advocates worry that the rule change wouldn’t be balanced out by strong safeguards for eagles. What happens if the health of eagle populations declines during a wind farm’s 30-year permit cycle? With a five-year permit, such shifts could be addressed with some frequency. Proponents of the rule change counter that, though federal law protects bald and golden eagles from being killed, neither species is endangered, populations are stable, and the new permits would require five-year check-ins with the feds to monitor impacts anyway. Plus, Anderson says, the number of eagles killed by turbines is miniscule compared to the amount taken out by a combination of other human threats (like lead poisoning, illegal shootings and collisions with vehicles).
The researchers behind the recent study point out that more data is needed to get a full picture of eagle mortality in the U.S., and that rates could actually be higher than estimated, since monitoring and reporting is spotty. “Data were gleaned from public-domain sources and documents wind energy companies voluntarily provided to the agency,” Environment & Energy Publishing reports. The research included data from 32 wind farms, and found that California and Wyoming had the highest mortality rates. Among the sites left out was the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where a 2006 study found that over 100 golden eagles may be killed each year. (More recent mitigation efforts seem to have reduced that number.)
In an essay earlier this year, Clive Hambler, a lecturer of biology and human sciences at Oxford University, opined that renewable energy advocates are ignoring catastrophic dangers that wind turbines create for bats and birds: “Some studies in the U.S. have put the death toll as high as 70 bats per installed megawatt per year. With 40,000 MW of turbines currently installed in the U.S. and Canada, this would give an annual death toll of up to three million.”
The debate over how much of an impact wind farms have on wildlife, and whether to allow 30-year take permits, is part of a broader conversation about how to best execute large-scale renewable energy projects in the West. Though renewables are one response to climate change, a major threat to wildlife, wind and wildlife protection are often pitted against one another. The Obama Administration, for its part, has been criticized for being more lenient with bird protection laws for renewable energy projects than for fossil fuel projects that pose equal threats, E&E reports.
Federal officials and several conservation organizations met in recent weeks to discuss the proposed changes to the rule, which was originally put in place in 2009. A decision to extend take permits to 30 years would be another indication of Obama’s commitment to the renewable energy economy. Perhaps the more important decisions for eagles, though, will be what safeguards and mitigation requirements come along with the permit extension and how Fish and Wildlife and the wind industry will work together to monitor impacts to eagles. As for the rule change, at this point, Anderson says, “It’s in the hands of the administration.”
Tay Wiles is HCN's online editor. She Tweets @taywiles.