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American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has called the final, voluntary wind guidelines released today by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) unenforceable, and charged that they will do little to protect millions of birds from the negative impacts of wind energy.
“ABC supports wind power when it is ‘bird-smart.’ Unfortunately, voluntary guidelines will result in more lawsuits, more bird deaths, and more government subsidies for bad projects, instead of what America needs: true green and bird-safe wind energy,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Coordinator for ABC.
“The United States has had voluntary guidelines since 2003, and yet preventable bird deaths at wind farms keep occurring. This includes thousands of Golden Eagles thought to have died at Altamont Pass in California, and just recently, more than 500 songbirds reportedly killed on two nights last fall in West Virginia,” said Fuller.
“For four years, FWS has been attempting to fix the voluntary guidelines problem with band aids. This is in spite of the fact that more than 150 organizations and 20,000 concerned citizens have shown their support for mandatory standards or are on record asking the Department of Interior for mandatory standards, not voluntary guidelines. Included in this group are the Sierra Club, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Birding Association, and many state Audubon societies,” Fuller said.
“Switching to the project permit system proposed in our petition would have fulfilled the agency’s mandate to protect migratory birds and keep them from becoming endangered while still enabling wind power development to continue.”
In 2009, FWS estimated that 440,000 birds were being killed each year by collisions with wind turbines, and recently included this figure in the agency’s 2013 budget request to Congress. In the absence of clear, legally enforceable regulations, the massive expansion of wind power in the United States will likely result in the deaths of more than one million birds each year by 2030. Further, wind energy projects are also expected to adversely impact almost 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat, and another 4,000 square miles of marine habitat.
Q. Audubon says the new guidelines are a “step forward for bird-friendly wind development.” Why do you think that?
A. The Federal Advisory Committee advising the Secretary of the Interior on the guidelines (on which Audubon served) worked over three years to produce a consensus document. Participants included the Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, the conservation community and the wind industry. We think the product of that expertise and that enormous effort has value and real potential for improving bird protection.
The voluntary guidelines will set nationwide standards for study protocols, recommendations for avoiding and minimizing impacts, and post-construction monitoring. Audubon also worked hard to incorporate language related to habitat fragmentation — cooperating wind companies will be expected to analyze (and avoid, minimize and mitigate) habitat impacts under this regime.
Q. Why is Audubon supporting voluntary guidelines instead of mandatory guidelines?
A. Because we think advocating for strong voluntary guidelines will yield the best result for birds and for the build-out of renewable energy sources.
We believe there is little appetite for mandatory guidelines in Washington, DC, as evidenced by the Interior Department’s rejection last week of a petition asking for mandatory guidelines.
On the other hand, the voluntary guidelines will put in place an important new industry-wide standard for how wind development will be planned and how impacts on birds will be avoided, minimized, and mitigated. If the Interior Department follows through with strong enforcement, we could see really meaningful change. “Voluntary” is also a bit of a misnomer. In fact, virtually every major wind company in the U.S. is on record having voluntarily pledged to comply with these guidelines. That’s why Audubon, and nearly every other national conservation group (including TNC, Defenders of Wildlife and many others), supports the guidelines as an important step forward.
Q. Why did the Interior Department reject the petition for mandatory guidelines?
A. The Department of the Interior does not believe the Migratory Bird Treaty Act can be used in a practical, implementable way to regulate activities like wind development. That is because the MBTA would require setting “take thresholds” for more than 1,000 species of protected migratory birds at every project. It just would not be workable in practice and would likely result in bureaucratic paralysis.
In addition, it is not clear that DOI could issue mandatory regulations for wind power without also addressing many other activities that harm birds — like construction of tall buildings, construction of cell towers, or approval of pesticide applications. So, from Interior’s perspective, a mandatory permitting process could quickly become enormously complex and burdensome on an underfunded agency.
Q. What do the new guidelines mean for endangered birds like California Condor and Whooping Crane that are threatened by wind development?
A. The guidelines include explicit language directing wind developers to obtain all necessary permits under federal wildlife law, including any permits that may be required under the Endangered Species Act. The guidelines do nothing to change regulatory requirements under the Endangered Species Act, so the condors and cranes remain well protected.
Q. Are the voluntary guidelines enforceable?
A. The guidelines have explicit ties to federal wildlife law. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not prosecuted a wind company under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The success of the framework will depend on strong enforcement of wildlife law and a high standard for assessing adherence to the guidelines going forward.