The US wind energy industry has been dealt a blow after a US court ruled that the Department of the Interior violated federal laws by allowing renewables firms to kill protected Bald and Golden Eagles.
The US District Court, in the Northern District of California, upheld a lawsuit by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which claimed that important laws protecting the nation’s wildlife were not properly followed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The court has overturned the DoI decision to allow wind energy firms 30-year permits to lawfully kill the protected birds without prosecution by the federal government. Permits were previously limited to five years.
The ABC hailed the decision. It believes wind energy and other renewable energy sources can be encouraged without putting Bald and Golden Eagles, and other protected wildlife, at risk but insists proper siting of turbines is critical.
“We are pleased that the courts agreed with us that improper shortcuts were taken in the development of this rule,” said Dr Michael Hutchins, director of ABC’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Program.
“The court found that important laws meant to protect our nation’s wildlife were not properly followed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.”
US district judge Lucy Koh, ruled in favour of ABC, the plaintiff.
In her August ruling she said: “Substantial questions are raised as to whether the Final 30-Year Rule may have a significant adverse effect on bald and golden eagle populations.”
In particular, the court cited a lack of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Hitchins said: “We’re ready to work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct the required NEPA analysis and formulate a better system to protect eagles from poorly-sited wind energy projects,” said Hutchins.
“We must come up with a better system to assess the potential risks to birds and bats prior to a project’s siting and construction and to track and mitigate project impacts post-construction.”
The previous “eagle take” rule, adopted in 2009, provided for a maximum duration of five years for each permit to kill eagles.
Judge Koh ruled: “While promoting renewable energy projects may well be a worthy goal,” the ruling continued, “it is no substitute for the [agency’s] obligations to comply with NEPA and to conduct a studied review and response to concerns about the environmental implications of major agency action.”
New ABC-funded research has revealed that more than 30,000 wind turbines have been installed in areas critical to the survival of federally-protected birds in the United States and that more than 50,000 additional turbines are planned for construction in similar areas.
One US study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2013 found that wind turbines kill 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptor fatilities) and 880,000 bats each year.
Commentator Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the US Court ruling was a set-back for the wind energy industry and for President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which depends on tripling domestic wind energy capacity to meet the plan’s CO2 targets by 2030.
He added: “Bird kills in general, and eagle kills in particular, are a legal and public-relations nightmare for an industry that promotes itself as ‘green’.”
In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it scrutinises hundreds of windfarm applications every year to determine their likely impact on wildlife.
It states: “We ultimately object to about 6% of those we engage with, because they threaten bird populations. Where developers are willing to adapt plans to reduce impacts to acceptable levels we withdraw our objections, in other cases we robustly oppose them.”
The RSPB added: “There are gaps in knowledge and understanding of the impacts of wind energy, so the environmental impact of operational wind farms needs to be monitored – and policies and practices need to be adaptable, as we learn more about the impacts of wind farms on birds.”
The RSPB, while supportive of renewables, is working as part of a cooperative long-term, strategic planning approach between developers and conservationists.
A 2014 study carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the University of Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute, on behalf of Scottish Government body Marine Scotland Science found more than 99% of seabirds were likely to avoid sites with turbines on them. However, researchers also it what affect the windfarms have on some vulnerable species remained unclear.