The U.S. Department of the Interior gave the California wind-power industry a boost last week that is almost certainly at the expense of the state’s bald and golden eagles.
In a change of policy, the department extended—from five years to 30—permits that protect companies from being penalized for killing the birds. The industry has sought the change for years, arguing that it needs the legal protection to attract long-term investment. Opponents fear that the extension makes it easier for companies to avoid seeking mitigation measures to lessen the killings.
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. “It's outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America's symbol, the bald eagle.” The Sierra Club said it could cause “serious harm” to eagles
The new rule allows the companies to self-report incidents of birds flying into whirling blades and adopt the department’s mitigation suggestions on a voluntary basis. Permits are to be reviewed every five years. The rule was first proposed in April 2012 and more than 120 conservation, wildlife and animal protection groups petitioned (pdf) against it during a 90-day comment period. It was also opposed (pdf) by the National Park Service.
California, like the rest of the nation, is struggling with an issue that sets environmentalist against environmentalist as the emergence of wind power, a promising alternative to carbon-based energy sources, poses a growing threat to endangered and fragile species. Utilities are required by state law to get 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. Around 20% of electricity sold by Pacific Gas & Electric is from renewable energy.
California has doubled its wind power capacity since 2002. As of September 2012, wind supplied 5% of the state’s electricity needs. The state leads the nation in the number of utility-scale wind turbines, 11,753 as of 2012, and is second overall, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wind provides power to the equivalent of more than 2.1 million homes.
That study relied on voluntary reporting by wind farm owners and excluded the most deadly locale of all, a cluster of wind farms in California’s Altamont Pass, where between 60 and 95 eagles a year reportedly die. It is known to some as the “Cuisinart of the Air.”