By DINA CAPPIELLO
2013-12-07 03:01 AM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration will allow companies to seek authorization to kill and harm bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years without penalty in an effort to balance some of the environmental trade-offs of green energy.
Conservation groups said the decision sanctioned the killing of America's symbol -- the bald eagle.
The change, requested by the wind energy industry and officially revealed Friday, will provide legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects that obtain a permit and do everything possible to avoid killing the birds.
A study by federal biologists released in September found that wind farms since 2008 had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles, a number that the researchers said was likely underestimated. The deaths highlight the conflict between two environmental goals: fighting climate change and protecting vulnerable species.
Under the new rule, companies will also have to commit to take additional measures if they exceed their permit limits or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.
But the rule makes clear that revoking a permit is a last resort.
"We anticipate that implementing additional mitigation measures ... will reduce the likelihood of amendments to, or revocation of, the permit," the rule reads.
Right now, as an AP investigation has documented, wind farms are killing eagles in violation of the law. Not a single wind energy company has a permit authorizing the killing, harm or harassment of eagles, although five-year permits have been available since 2009. That puts companies at legal risk and discourages private investment in renewable energy.
It also doesn't help eagles, since without a permit, companies are not required to take steps to reduce their impact on the birds or report when they kill them.
Conservation groups, which have been aligned with the wind industry on other issues, criticized the decision by the Interior Department.
"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. The group said it would challenge the decision.
The wind energy industry says the change mirrors permitting already in place for endangered species, which are far more at risk than bald and golden eagles. Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but are still protected under two federal laws.
The regulation published Friday was not subjected to a full environmental review because the administration classified it as an administrative change.
Last month, Duke Energy Corp. pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other birds at two Wyoming wind farms, the first time a wind energy company has been prosecuted under a law protecting migratory birds. The permitting program falls under a separate statute, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
It's unclear what toll, if any, wind energy companies are having on eagle populations locally or regionally. Gunshots, electrocutions and poisonings likely kill more bald and golden eagles than wind farms. But with the industry still growing, the toll could grow.
A recent assessment of status of the golden eagle in the western U.S. showed that populations have been decreasing in some areas and rising in others.