Proposed revisions to wind power guidelines could allow wind power companies to injure or kill more bald and golden eagles per year without penalty.
The revised guidelines are unlikely to lead to thousands of additional eagle deaths because they impose more stringent requirements on wind power companies to minimize such accidents, and there's little evidence that wind turbines currently kill anywhere close to 4,200 eagles per year.
In early May 2016, a number of alarmist blog posts reported that President Obama had issued a "kill order" allowing more than 4,000 bald eagles to be slaughtered each year for the next 30 years. A popular version published by Liberty Writers was heavy-handed with symbolism, maintaining that President Obama "really hates" bald eagles:
Bald Eagles are one of the most enduring symbols of being American. They are a majestic bird of prey. They were on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife until 2007, but were just removed by Obama. They have been endangered for decades, but Obama thinks it’s okay to allow their slaughter.
*** Wasn’t he satisfied with killing America already?
Obama doesn’t have any issues destroying America. Now, he wants to take down our national symbols. He has also approved the handing out of permits to wind farms that have killed off thousands of Bald Eagles. Obama is doing this in the name of “conservation.” He and his liberal friends at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service are giving out 30-year-permits to wind farms like candy. He really hates the Bald Eagle.
*** No, really. Wait till you see how the are getting killed by the thousands.
The basis of this claim was something rather different than what sites such as Liberty Writers were reporting, however. As an ABC News article of 4 May 2016 noted, what has been widely described as a "kill order" for bald eagles is actually revisions to existing wind-energy guidelines that, in part, pertain to accidental bald and golden eagle deaths involving wind turbines. According to the revised guidelines, the time permit of limits granted to wind power companies would be extended from five to 30 years (with renewals still required every five years), and the number of eagles that could permissibly (i.e., without financial penalty) be killed or injured each year by wind power companies would be increased. However, wind power companies would be required to take steps to minimize such losses and would have to take additional measures if they exceeded the stated limits or substantially affected bald or gold eagle populations:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new plan that would allow energy companies to operate with permits lasting up to 30 years, while also raising the number of bald eagles they can kill or injure per year without incurring hefty penalties to 4,200, which is nearly four times the current limit.
A source within the Obama administration said this is the best plan put forward to actually help conservation efforts, maintaining this new proposal is a “strong protection” for bald and golden eagles.
Currently, wind power companies can hold permits for five years at a time, which, according to the source, doesn’t give companies good financial footing. By extending the permit to 30 years, it can encourage the development of wind energy, a key source of renewable power that has increased exponentially in recent years. The 30-year permits would still have to be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they kill or injure.
The proposal will grant access to critical data about eagles, the source said. It will also allow the administration to work with companies in where the companies place their machines — hopefully to help avoid possible eagle populations.
“The permitting system gives us access to eagles and eagle mortalities that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” the source said. “It’s a great mechanism for us to work proactively to prevent eagle deaths.”
Under the new proposal, companies would pay a $36,000 fee for a permit, which exempts them from the hefty penalties for killing or injuring eagles. Companies would have to commit to take additional measures if they kill or injure more eagles than estimated, or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.
The change in regulations doesn't mean that power companies are suddenly going to be setting their wind turbines to "eagle kill" mode and bagging the limit of 4,200 bald eagles per year, however. A 2013 article published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Raptor Research found that "concerns over the effects of [turbine-related deaths] on North America's Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles exist, but are weakly substantiated due to a lack of published documentation of mortalities." That study aimed to "summarize documented cases of eagle mortality at wind energy facilities in the contiguous United States" for the 15-year period prior to its publication.
Between 1997 and June 2012, researchers identified 85 combined bald eagle and golden eagle fatalities attributed to wind turbines, or roughly 5.6 deaths per year in the entirety of the contiguous United States. Moreover, of those 85 total eagle deaths in a 15-year period, only six were bald eagles. The remaining 79 deceased birds were golden eagles. Those findings were illustrated in a state-by-state table:
Additionally, conservationists asserted that the risk posed to eagles by wind turbines was far less than the risk created by the effect of climate change on the birds' habitats:
Yet many environmentalists say wind power ultimately benefits birds. It is a "a growing solution to some of the more serious threats that birds face, since wind energy emits no greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change," Terry Root of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said in a statement accompanying the study's release.
[In September 2014], a National Audubon Society report said that hundreds of bird species in the U.S. — including the bald eagle and eight state birds, from Idaho to Maryland — are at "serious risk" due to climate change. It said some species are forecast to lose more than 95% of their current ranges.
"Our scientists are still reviewing this particular study," says Audubon spokesman David Ringer. He says his group strongly supports "properly sited wind power as a renewable energy source that helps reduce the threat posed to birds and people by climate change." He says it has helped develop guidelines for the wind industry to minimize harm to wildlife.
So revisions to wind power guidelines allow for the possibility that wind power companies could kill more bald and golden eagles without penalty (up to 4,200) than they have in the past. However, there is little evidence that many eagles have been killed or injured under the existing rules, and the revisions are balanced by requirements that wind power companies implement more stringent safeguards to protect such animals, such as enabling the collection of valuable information about eagles, and helping to foster sources of energy (such as wind power) that do not threaten eagles through the degradation of their existing habitats.