APPLE VALLEY, Calif. – Fears that whirling wind turbines could slaughter protected golden eagles have halted progress on a key piece of the federal government's push to increase renewable energy on public lands, stalling plans for billions of dollars in wind farm developments.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management suspended issuing wind permits on public land indefinitely this summer after wildlife officials invoked a decades-old law for protecting eagles, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The restriction has stymied efforts to "fast-track" approvals for four of the seven most promising wind energy proposals in the nation, including all three in California.
Now, these and other projects appear unlikely to make the year-end deadline to potentially qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funds. If extensions aren't granted in the lame duck session of Congress, the future of many of these plans could be in doubt.
"(Companies) are waiting to know the criteria to get a permit," said Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for BLM's California desert district, of the companies hoping federal agencies will begin permitting again soon. LaPre said he expects it to be "at least a year or longer" before permitting resumes.
Golden eagles are the latest roadblock to establishing wind farms on federally owned land, already an expensive process plagued by years of bureaucratic delay. The projects also have been untracked by other wildlife issues, a sluggish economy and objections by defense and aviation authorities that wind turbines interfere with the country's aged radar system.
The delays are occurring despite a target set by Congress in 2005 that directed the Interior Department to approve about 5 million homes worth of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Since then, only two of the more than 250 currently proposed wind projects have been approved and neither has been built, records and interviews show.
The four fast-track projects in jeopardy of losing stimulus funds due to eagle issues would alone generate about 416 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power roughly a half million U.S. homes during peak usage.
There are presently 28 wind farms operating on public lands, which make up about 13 percent of the U.S. land surface, although records show that more than 800 have been proposed in recent decades.
The vast majority of public lands regulated by the BLM are in western states, where all current onshore wind farms approved or in planning stages will be located. Offshore wind farms, like those proposed off the New England coast, are regulated by a different federal agency.
"It's a broad challenge to us as a country," said Nathanael Greene, renewable energy policy director at the National Resources Defense Council. "How do we rapidly deploy the renewable energy technologies and transmission infrastructures to stave off catastrophic climate change and local and regional air pollution that comes with burning fossil fuels? Even the best sited projects have impacts on the landscape."
The July eagle memo obtained by the AP directed BLM staff not to approve any more permits until companies submit protection plans. Federal officials said they do not know when permitting will resume nor whether the stimulus deadline will be met.
Meanwhile, a group of Democratic lawmakers late Friday urged colleagues in both the House and Senate to support the inclusion of a one-year extension of the stimulus deadline in any tax-package agreement that makes it through this lame-duck session. Still, it was uncertain whether the extension for renewable energy project cash grants would make it into any final bill.
Wind companies estimate the eagle rules are holding up $68 billion in investment, and they complain that they are stalled because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to finalize permit requirements.
"Most BLM projects are being held up as a result of this," said John Anderson, director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. "It's definitely a mixed message and an example of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing."
Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife Tom Strickland said the department is working on the issue but "has no intention of shortcutting a thorough environmental review process."
"The fast-track process has meant cutting red tape — not cutting corners," Strickland wrote in an e-mail to the AP.
For years, wind farms sprouted on privately held land while projects on public lands languished, in part because of the complex federal environmental reviews. Projects on private land are governed by state regulations if a federally protected species does not live there, which can lead to a cheaper and quicker approval process. If a threatened or endangered species is on private land, then federal environmental review is required just like a public site.
The average farm in 2009 had 49 wind turbines with each measuring about 410 feet tall.
The only project approved is the Spring Valley wind farm in Nevada where the nearest eagle nest was over four miles away. Gina Jones, BLM's project leader, said the company agreed to extensive mitigation, such as putting "anti-perch" devices on transmission poles within two miles of the wind farm.
Among the stalled high-priority projects is RES Americas' plan for an estimated $148 million project on wind-swept desert in San Bernardino County.
Company biologists spent weeks amid the scrub and Joshua trees studying two pairs of eagles to see if they would be harmed by turbines for the 74 megawatt wind farm — enough to supply more than 75,000 homes yearly. BLM biologist LaPre, who also studied the situation, did not think an avian protection plan was needed but was overruled by other BLM and wildlife officials.
"The eagles were not flying over the site," LaPre said. "I thought they'd be OK."
RES now stands to lose an estimated $45 million in federal stimulus funding. "This new regulation to a degree pulls the rug out from under us," said Scott Piscitello, vice president of development.
The birds are renowned for their flying range, traveling miles to hunt down a jack rabbit. The latest population estimate in 2004 placed the number at about 80,000 in North America. But biologists say the birds have been declining, partly because they were getting killed by wind turbine blades.
While the eagles are found across the country, populations are larger in the West. California's three priority projects alone are within 10 miles of 21 golden eagle territories, the closest 1,000 feet away.
The wind industry has also been grappling with the Department of Defense, which has objected to proposals that could interfere with aging radar systems. Wind turbines can disrupt aviation and weather radar systems, making planes disappear, creating phantom aircraft and making storms appear when they do not exist.
Since the mid-2000s, about 9,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects were delayed or derailed because of radar issues, according to AWEA, the industry's trade group. Defense officials say they are trying to work out issues with companies and even posted an online map so companies can see if their proposals are close to radar systems.
These obstacles came as the economy was already dampening investment in renewable energy and making qualification for stimulus funds much more critical. Sarah Rankin, a project coordinator for West Butte Wind and Power, was hoping to get as much as $66 million in stimulus money for a $220 million wind project that has been delayed by the new eagle requirements.
"We're doing everything we can to move things forward," said Rankin, whose 104 megawatt wind farm proposal is planned for west of Bend in central Oregon. "Whether or not we'll qualify for stimulus grant money remains to be seen."
Dwight Fielder, who heads BLM's Division of Fish, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, said federal officials are discussing issuing conditional permits to companies working on eagle protection plans, but it's not clear if this would allow them to make the stimulus funding deadline.
"That," he said "Is the $64 question."