SEATTLE – For decades, environmentalists urged the nation's energy producers to embrace the wind as a source of clean, renewable power. Now, as the world's largest wind-generating project nears completion, environmental concerns threaten to alter, if not delay, the endeavor.
The Stateline Wind Generating Project — now under construction along the Washington-Oregon border — is expected to produce 300 megawatts, enough electricity to power 70,000 homes.
The project calls for the construction of more than 450 wind turbines on both sides of the state line.
But there's a problem.
An environmental study mandated by Oregon law has discovered an active colony of Washington ground squirrels at the construction site. The rodents are protected under Oregon's Endangered Species Act.
"It's going to delay [the project]," said Rep. Jeff Kropf, a farmer who also serves as a Republican in the Oregon state House. "That's a delay I don't think we can afford right now, given the tremendous power issues we have on the West Coast."
The company developing the Stateline Project, Florida Power & Light subsidiary FPL Energy, downplays the chances of a delay.
"We still hope to build the entire facility in the initial timeframe," said company spokeswoman Carol Clawson.
However, Clawson said concerns over the squirrels may force the company to change the location of some wind turbines.
Environmentalists remain optimistic a solution can be reached.
"We need to be flexible," said Mark Glyde, a spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an environmental group advocating alternative energy production. "We need to be able to move and adjust these projects so that they do work as well as possible to meet our power needs and take into consideration endangered species."
But many of the project's supporters find it ironic that an "environmentally friendly" industry has to jump through so many bureaucratic hoops in the name of the environment.
That is not the only irony.
The Washington ground squirrel, while protected under the Oregon ESA, is not considered endangered in Washington, the very state from where it gets its name.
The Oregon Office of Energy estimates 20 percent of the wind turbines slated for Oregon could be moved to Washington to avoid delays over squirrels. That could ultimately cost jobs and revenue in a rural part of Oregon that is hungry for both.
"I find it unbelievable that we're going to sacrifice the needs of people over a very small segment of an endangered species," Kropf said.
Kropf and fellow Republican Rep. Bob Jenson have co-sponsored a bill in the Oregon House that would require the state to investigate and consider human and economic impacts before listing an animal as endangered.
"The purpose of the bill is not to prevent listing," Jenson said. "The intention is to know what we're doing when we list. We think that only makes good common sense."
Jenson and Kropf say they ultimately want their bill to serve as a model for changes in environmental policy at the federal level.
In the meantime, they hope to convince the State of Oregon that this energy-starved region's need for a clean power alternative outweighs the inconvenience it may cause for some squirrels.