The Obama administration has nearly finalized a rule that would give energy companies lengthy permits for wind farms that end up killing bald and golden eagles.
Hundreds of thousands of birds are killed every year after flying into large wind turbine blades, an issue that became an ongoing saga for the administration this year.
The White House finalized its review on Thursday of a rule that would give the farms a 30-year pass for the killings, known as "takings."
The details of the Interior Department rule are not yet known and it is possible it could be tweaked, though significant changes would be unusual at this stage in the process.
Obama found himself caught between green groups and renewable energy companies over the summer due to the controversy surrounding the rule, which also applies to oil rigs and electric lines.
An Interior Department official told The Hill it has been working "for more than a year to gather public and stakeholder input on the proposal," which was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget back in April.
In August, green groups met with the White House to make the case that the 30-year permit is too long, even if the deaths are unintentional.
They argued the administration should be more diligent in reviewing the effects large wind farms have on the environment.
Late last month, Duke Energy reached a $1 million settlement with the Obama administration over the deaths of more than a dozen protected eagles and other birds at its wind farms.
The settlement marked the first time the administration had penalized a wind energy company for killing eagles.
By Laura Barron-Lopez
Obama administration issues permits for wind farms to kill more eagles
The Interior Department says it will change the rules and issue permits that would let wind farms kill eagles for up to 30 years, or six times longer than the current permits allow.
Wind farms — the fields of windmill turbines that dot the landscape — kill about 440,000 birds of all species every year, according to a government estimate, which raises questions about the balance between the renewable energy resource and the very environment it is supposed to be helping.
“Permits to kill eagles just seems unpatriotic, and 30 years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican and a critic of the Interior Department.
He and fellow Republicans said the administration has been tougher on traditional energy sources such as oil and gas when it comes to bird kills, but has been more lenient on renewable energy.
“There needs to be a balanced approach in protecting migratory birds, while also supporting domestic energy, and with this newest decision, the administration has failed to achieve that,” Mr. Vitter said.
The new rule will officially be published on Monday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the rule, said while it’s raising the maximum permit to 30 years, it could still issue wind farm permits for less than that.
The permits may also include requirements for extra steps the wind farms must take to try to reduce eagle kills — particularly if future evidence suggests the turbines are killing more eagles than expected.
But the service said it makes sense to grant a longer eagle-kill permit because renewable energy projects’ lifespan is generally far longer than the 5 years that are currently allowed.
Killing bald or golden eagles is generally prohibited by federal law, but gives the government the power to grant exemptions.
“Permits may authorize lethal take that is incidental to an otherwise lawful activity, such as mortalities caused by collisions with wind turbines, powerline electrocutions, and other potential sources of incidental take,” the agency said in its official rule posting.
The agency said eagle populations have been about stable over the last 40 years, but acknowledged a lot of uncertainty about wind farms and their effects.
“In the case of managing eagle populations in the face of energy development, there is considerable uncertainty. For example, evidence shows that in some areas or specific situations, large soaring birds, specifically raptors, are especially vulnerable to colliding with wind turbines,” the agency said.
“However, we are uncertain about the relative importance of different factors that influence that risk,” the agency said. “We are also uncertain which strategies would best mitigate the effects of wind energy developments on raptors. Populations of raptors with relatively low fecundity, such as golden eagles, are more susceptible to population declines due to new sources of mortality.”
By Stephen Dinan-The Washington Times