Wind power and birds – did Obama get it right?

The Obama administration has instituted new voluntary guidelines for project siting and development.

Clearly, the administration is attempting to thread the needle and allow wind power to expand while minimizing damage to wildlife – including deaths to high-profile bird species like golden and bald eagles and California condors, as well as to bats.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) said the guidelines on the hot-button issue, which take effect immediately, “provide a structured, scientific process for developers, federal and state agencies, and tribes to identify sites with low risk to wildlife, and to help them assess, mitigate, and monitor any adverse effects of wind energy projects on wildlife and their habitats.”

While the voluntary guidelines don’t carry the big stick of mandatory regulation, they do come with a carrot: DOI suggested that developers found to be in violation of laws and regulations – whose turbines, for instance, kill a protected species – could potentially escape trouble if they can show “documented efforts to communicate with the Service and adhere to the Guidelines.”

In its press release announcing the guidelines, DOI included a statement of support from the head of Audubon, David Yarnold. He said the “federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy.” Yarnold said that by “collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs.”

Support in some quarters, perhaps, but not in all. As part of DOI’s rulemaking process, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) had asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a mandatory permitting system for the operation of wind projects and mitigation of their impacts on migratory birds.

ABC Wind Campaign Coordinator Kelly Fuller told EarthTechling today that the rejection of the group’s 109-page petition [PDF] was “completely cursory” and failed to engage the legal and scientific analyses put forward.

As for the guidelines instituted, Fuller said in an ABC statement that they “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.”

Like most environmental organizations, the ABC says it’s not opposed to wind energy, but simply believes that development needs to be done smartly, with proper siting of projects of utmost importance. But of course the devil is always in the details on such matters. And the government asserted that the guidelines will indeed be effective specifically on the matter of siting by using what it called a “tiered approach.” It described the tiers this way:

* Tier 1 – Preliminary site evaluation (landscape-scale screening of possible project sites)

* Tier 2 – Site characterization (broad characterization of one or more potential project sites)

* Tier 3 – Field studies to document site wildlife and habitat and predict project impacts

* Tier 4 – Post-construction studies to estimate impacts

* Tier 5 – Other post-construction studies and research

This, DOI said, “provides the opportunity for evaluation and decision-making at each stage, enabling a developer to abandon or proceed with project development, or to collect additional information if required.”

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which opposed a mandatory permitting process, joined Audubon in backing the guidelines.

“These guidelines set the highest standard, either voluntary or mandatory, of wildlife protection for any industry,” said Denise Bode, CEO of the AWEA. “It is our hope that in conjunction with rapid training and sensible implementation, the guidelines will promote improved siting practices and increased wildlife protection that in turn will foster the continued rapid growth of wind energy across the nation.”

The full guidelines are available online as an 82-page PDF.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling