FWS wind turbine guidelines ruffle feathers of both enviros and industry

Posted: May 24, 2011

Written by

PHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
Wind turbine

The Interior Department's draft guidelines for the responsible siting and operation of wind farms fail to protect at-risk species like the sage grouse and prairie chicken and could result in the deaths of more than a million birds a year within the next 20 years, a leading bird advocacy group says.

But wind power developers warn that Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed wind energy guidelines are overly broad and would curb development of a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels.

"The wind energy industry has voluntarily agreed to hold itself to a higher standard for wildlife study, mitigation and protection than any other industry in the country," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group that called the draft guidelines "unworkable."

"Unfortunately, the FWS proposals in their current form do not represent a reasonable balance between the important and complementary goals of wildlife conservation and deployment of non-polluting energy," she said.

The agency's draft guidelines published in February are designed to help wind developers pick sites with minimal risk to wildlife and assess, monitor and mitigate potential impacts on fish, wildlife and their habitats (E&ENews PM, Feb. 8).

The 87-page draft is designed to provide a consistent and predictable process for developers, while making accommodations for the unique circumstances of each project.

Valerie Fellows, an FWS spokeswoman, said the agency had received more than 29,000 comments on both the draft wind energy guidelines and separate guidance to help developers comply with a federal law protecting eagles.

The agency intends to publish the comments and hopes to finalize the guidance by next spring. She emphasized that the guidance will remain voluntary unless the balance of public comments ask that they be made mandatory.

"At this point, we don't foresee any rulemaking process," she said.

But that's not the desired outcome for the American Bird Conservancy, which urged the agency to set standards to prevent bird deaths and habitat fragmentation while providing regulatory certainty for wind farm developers.

The group said 56 groups and more than 20,000 individuals have joined its "bird-smart" campaign to improve the siting and operation of wind farms.

"Wind farms can have significant impacts on birds, including eagles, songbirds, and endangered species, through collisions with turbines and associated power lines, and through loss of habitat," said Mike Parr, vice president of ABC, in a statement. "If bird-smart principles aren't adopted, we could easily see well over a million birds killed by turbines each year once the wind industry completes its expected build-out by 2030."

In addition to recommending mandatory rather than voluntary standards, the group is asking FWS to establish buffer zones to protect prairie chickens and sage grouse, which FWS has named a candidate species for Endangered Species Act protections.

The group is also recommending mandatory avian and bat protection plans for all wind facilities and requirements that projects follow established guidelines for power lines that minimize bird deaths, among other things.

"The draft wind guidelines take good steps toward these measures, but don't go far enough," Parr said. "If a voluntary approach was going to be successful, it would already have happened. But it hasn't, and it's time now to acknowledge that."

Parr said mandatory standards would provide greater certainty to wind farm developers and their investors while leveling the playing field so environmentally safe developments are not at a competitive disadvantage.

A 'wasted' collaboration?

But wind power developers and some conservation groups said the draft guidelines are overly burdensome and, while voluntary, appear to give FWS the ability to prevent a project from going forward.

Industry critics say the draft guidelines also deviate significantly from recommendations of a federal advisory committee that included wildlife conservation organizations, state wildlife agencies and wind industry representatives, among others.

The committee in March 2010 submitted what it said were consensus recommendations to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (Land Letter, April 15, 2010).

"They had three-year stakeholder process that was under way and detailed, and was really extensive and came to some real compromise solutions that the industry and environmentalists and conservationists and everybody could live with," said Frank Maisano, an energy expert at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents some turbine manufacturers. "They felt like it was just work wasted."

In particular, AWEA warned that the draft guidelines exceed the recommendations of the advisory committee by expanding the role of FWS in the review process, lengthening the duration and scope of pre- and post-construction wildlife monitoring and adding to the list of covered species and impacts, among other things.

FWS notes that the advisory committee recommendations did not include a specific time frame for pre-construction monitoring and assessment, and that the draft's three-year recommendation is needed to identify trends in site use and conditions that allow for variations in meteorological conditions, biological factors and other variables.

AWEA also criticized draft recommendations that developers consult with FWS prior to "any financial obligation or finalization of lease agreements" and adhere to any agency recommendation to the "maximum extent practicable." The group urged removal of any language implying that FWS can take a regulatory role.

The group also opposed draft guidelines expanding the scope of covered species to "fish, wildlife and their habitat" and "affected species," and recommended limiting study and mitigation procedures to "species of concern," as prescribed by the federal committee.

"The wind energy industry wants to do the 'right thing' with respect to environmental and wildlife protection. But, the current draft FWS guidelines are, simply stated, unworkable," AWEA said in its comments to FWS. "Industry will not be able to comply with the guidelines as currently drafted. Therefore, they, like the 2003 Interim Siting Guidelines, will remain largely unused."

AWEA said it expects the draft guidelines would jeopardize more than 34,000 megawatts of wind power projects, more than 27,500 jobs, $103 million in potential landowner revenue and $68 billion in investment.

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