WASHINGTON - Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the Obama administration said Friday it will allow companies to kill or injure eagles without the fear of prosecution for up to three decades.
The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation's wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles being killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.
An investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year documented the illegal killing of eagles around wind farms, the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute such cases and its willingness to help keep the scope of the eagle deaths secret. President Barack Obama has championed the pollution-free energy, nearly doubling America's wind power in his first term as a way to tackle global warming.
But all energy has costs, and the administration has been forced to accept the not-so-green sides of green energy as a means to an end.
Another AP investigation recently showed that corn-based ethanol blended into the nation's gasoline has proven more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and worse than the government acknowledges.
These examples highlight Obama's willingness to accept environmental trade-offs - pollution, loss of conservation land and the deaths of eagles - in hopes that green energy will help fight climate change.
The new rule will provide legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects if companies obtain permits and make efforts to avoid killing protected birds.
Companies would have to take additional measures if they killed or injured more eagles than they had estimated they would, or if new information suggested that eagle populations were being affected. The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they killed. Now, such reporting is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.
"This is not a program to kill eagles," said John Anderson, the director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. "This permit program is about conservation."
But conservation groups, which have been aligned with the industry on other issues, said the decision by the Interior Department sanctions the killing of an American icon.
"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold in a statement. The group said it would challenge the decision.
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
Flying eagles behave somewhat like drivers texting on cellphones; they don't look up. As they scan below for food, they don't notice the blades until it is too late.
Until now, no wind energy company has obtained permission authorizing the killing, injuring or harassment of eagles, although five-year permits have been available since 2009. That has put the companies at legal risk and has discouraged private investment in renewable energy.
It also hasn't helped eagles since, without permits, companies are not required to take steps to reduce their impact on the birds or report when they are killed.
The new rule makes clear that revoking a permit - which could undermine investments and interest in wind power - is a last resort under the administration's energy policy.
"We anticipate that implementing additional mitigation measures ... will reduce the likelihood of amendments to, or revocation of, the permit," the rule says.
The wind energy industry has said the change mirrors permits already in place for endangered species, which are more at risk than bald and golden eagles. Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but are still protected under two federal laws.
The regulation published Friday was not subjected to a full environmental review because the administration classified it as an administrative change.
"The federal government didn't study the impacts of this rule change even though the (law) requires it," said Kelly Fuller, who formerly headed the wind campaign at the American Bird Conservancy. "Instead, the feds have decided to break the law and use eagles as lab rats."
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the new rule will enable it to better monitor the long-term environmental effects of renewable energy projects.
"Our goal is to ensure that the wind industry sites and operates projects in ways that best minimize and avoid impacts to eagles and other wildlife," the agency said in a statement.
Last month, Duke Energy Corp. pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other birds at two wind farms in Wyoming, the first time a wind energy company had been prosecuted under a law protecting migratory birds.
A study by federal biologists in September found that wind farms since 2008 had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles, a number that the researchers said was likely underestimated. That did not include deaths at Altamont Pass, an area in northern California where wind farms kill an estimated 60 eagles a year.
It's unclear what toll, if any, wind energy companies are having on eagle populations locally or regionally. Gunshots, electrocutions and poisonings almost certainly kill more bald and golden eagles than wind farms. But the toll could grow along with the industry.
A recent assessment of the status of the golden eagle in the western U.S. showed that populations have been decreasing in some areas but rising in others.