WASHINGTON — The Obama administration acknowledges it has cast the fate of bald and golden eagles to wind.
In a rule published in the Federal Register Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that lobbyists for wind and solar companies convinced agency officials to lengthen the period under which companies will not be held liable if a wind turbine spears an eagle to death accidentally.
“… (W)e have reviewed applications from proponents of renewable-energy projects, such as wind and solar-power facilities, for programmatic permits from an authorized eagle take that may result from the the construction and ongoing operations of renewable energy projects,” the Fish and Wildlife Service announced. “During our review, it became evident that the five-year term limit imposed by the 2009 regulations should better correspond to the operational time frame of renewable energy projects.”
Firms will be allowed to apply for permits that last as long as 30 years instead of five years under a 2009 proposal. The rule goes into effect January 8.
The new Interior Department rule has attracted cross-ideological criticism as a favor to the wind-energy industry. Although it applies to any renewable-energy firm or installation, including military bases, it is expected to most benefit wind-power companies, which partly as a consequence of receiving generous federal subsidies in recent years, have sprouted up in western states such as Colorado.
Conservative Republicans and leading “green” organizations alike said that by extending the takings-permit period from five years to 30 years, the rule gives a wink and a nod to wind-farm owners about the deaths of golden and bald eagles on their property.
“This new rule is a license to kill our national symbol and is one more disappointing example of the Obama administration caving to pressure from the renewable energy lobby,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) said in a statement Monday.
“Crazy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview.
“This rule could lead to many unnecessary deaths of eagles. And that’s a wrong-headed approach,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Monday. “As the wind energy industry has grown, an increasing number of golden eagles have been struck by wind-turbine blades.”
An official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defended the rule as a realistic and practical effort to work with industry, including that of wind energy.
“It’s not a license to kill in the sense they deliberately know these birds are being killed, but we realize that takings occur and … eagles get hit by these facilities,” spokesman Chris Tollefson said in an interview.
Tollefson acknowledged that wind-energy industry stands to benefit the most from the rule because the number of wind farms has increased, but said it is “not being treated any differently than any other industry.” He noted that Duke Energy Renewable pled guilty in November to violating a federal law that protects eagles.
Fifteen wind farms and utilities have applied for the 30-year permit, Tollefson said.
Trapping, wounding, or killing a bald or golden eagle has been a federal offense with the threat of stiff financial penalties and prison sentences under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Those whose company causes the accidental death of an eagle and those who seek to “take” an eagle for highly limited reasons have been allowed to apply for a five-year exemption from prosecution.
The Obama administration has bestowed generous federal subsidies to wind- and solar energy companies, such as the $400 million loan guarantee it gave to Abound Solar, a Longmont, Colorado-based company that declared bankruptcy in 2012. In addition, it supported a $12-billion-a-year production tax credit to wind farms.
But the new rule does raise the price of the fee for applying for the 30-year permit. Instead of requiring firms to pay $1,000 for five years, it will require $36,000 for as long as 30 years and an administrative fee of $15,600.
Tollefson said the number of eagles that have been killed as a result of wind turbines is unavailable.
Congressional representatives with the relevant House and Senate committees said they do not plan to hold hearings on the topic. McCain indicated that Congress should do something. “I’m just thinking out loud here, but we could hold hearings on it,” he said.