Friday’s announcement by the Obama administration that it will allow wind energy companies to kill certain bird species for 30 years without legal ramifications shows that its $1 million paltry fine of Duke Energy for avian slayings a week earlier was just for show.
Slamming the president for the application of double standards, not enforcing laws it doesn’t like, and acting unilaterally without Congressional authority is nothing new. It’s not often, though, you see such an obvious policy contradiction appear within such a short period of time. And now, without need to worry about re-election, he can pit his environmental constituencies against each other (wildlife protection vs. green energy promotion).
The latest decision, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, extends the maximum possible term for permits to “take” (“molest or disturb”… “take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import…”) from five years to 30 years. According to the rule the agency placed in the Federal Register, the change “will facilitate the responsible development of renewable energy and other projects designed to operate for decades….” So, all of a sudden – when it comes to wind, but not fossil fuels – “regulatory certainty” is a big concern for the Obama administration. Makes sense considering the billions of dollars he’s poured into subsidizing renewables.
Of course the wind energy industry asked for (more) special treatment, like it has with loan guarantees, grants, research funding, tax credits, and mandates for the use of its intermittent power by electric utilities. The American Wind Energy Association says the permit change is no big deal.
“Eagle fatalities only occur at a very small number of facilities across the country,” AWEA says on its Web site. “In fact, collision with turbines at modern wind farms is responsible for less than 2 percent of all reported human-caused golden eagle fatalities, and only a handful of bald eagle fatalities ever….”
Of course, eagles aren’t the only species sliced and diced by turbine blades. An independent study published by the Wildlife Society Bulletin, cited by the Daily Caller, found that 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed by wind projects in the U.S. every year. And according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own analysis, the number of birds killed is 440,000 per year, National Review reported.
Realizing the bad optics but at the same time desperate for the special protection – since wind turbines aren’t going to stop spinning and birds aren’t going to stop flying into them – the industry sought measures for its own preservation. The White House even hosted a powwow in August with AWEA and several environmental groups to discuss eagle permits.
“This is not a program to kill eagles,” said John Anderson, the director of siting policy at AWEA, to the Associated Press. “This permit program is about conservation.”
Many environmental and wildlife protection groups disagreed.
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, (the Department of) Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president of Audubon.
“The federal government didn’t study the impacts of this rule change even though the [law] requires it,” said Kelly Fuller, who formerly headed up the wind campaign at the American Bird Conservancy. “Instead, the feds have decided to break the law and use eagles as lab rats.”
Republican Sen. David Vitter, the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has sought accountability from the Obama Justice Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service for accountability over the inequitable application of species protection laws against energy companies – namely, the fossil fuel industry gets prosecutions and fines while the regulators pass wind. But amazingly, the leniency granted for wind was so extreme it put the conservative Vitter on the same side as most environmental groups, as Politico noted.
“Thirty years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate,” Vitter said in a statement. “The Administration has repeatedly prosecuted oil, gas, and other businesses for taking birds, but looks the other way when wind farms or other renewable energy companies do the exact same thing. 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.”
So who benefits? Companies like Duke Energy, which only two weeks ago was trotted out as a poster child by the Justice Department to prove that they prosecute wind projects for bird killings too. It wouldn’t surprise if we found out that Duke agreed to pay the $1 million fine for killing 160 or so birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, knowing that the Obama administration – a close ally of recently departed Duke CEO Jim Rogers – was going to grant this huge regulatory break for them and AWEA. The settlement came after Vitter and Sen. Lamar Alexander had waited nearly a year for an answer to their inquiry about unequal appliance of the bird protection laws.
Besides the Congressional pressure (House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) made his own inquiry in May), the administration was also feeling the heat from the mainstream media this year as well. In May the Associated Press published a lengthy expose of how the wind industry has been given a pass on eagle deaths, and even showed how the administration was complicit in its protection.
“Killing these iconic birds is…a federal crime, a charge that the Obama administration has used to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines,” AP reported. “But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly. Instead, the government is shielding the industry from liability and helping keep the scope of the deaths secret.”
Among the ways the Obama administration concealed the bird kills, according to AP, was to not disclose companies’ reports of “takes,” claiming the information belongs to the energy companies and are trade secrets or would interfere with enforcement investigations.
Noticeably absent among conservation groups from the August meeting on permits was the American Bird Conservancy, which has been consistently vocal against the leniency granted to the wind industry.
“There are no seats at the exclusive decision-making table for groups that want the wind industry to be held accountable for the birds it kills,” said Kelly Fuller, who works on wind issues for the group.
The development at the end of last week shows how powerful the wind industry has become in the eyes of the Obama administration. Two AWEA representatives sat in that August meeting with at least 7 others from environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, and came away with a 30-year grace period.
This is what the Obama administration looks like in pursuit of its agenda without concern for re-election.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.