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The Obama Administration’s parting shot at the bald eagle

As I’ve mentioned it this blog before, I enjoy getting out and shooting photographs of birds and wildlife.  In my hundreds of trips around south Texas and the Gulf Coast, I’ve been fortunate to have spotted a bald eagle on less than a half dozen occasions.  When I do see one and am able to get a decent shot, it’s a reason to celebrate.

I’ve also noted on this blog my disdain for regulations that allow the wind and solar industries to kill bald eagles, golden eagles and any other raptors or miscellaneous birds that happen to wander in the way of the blades of their turbines or the incendiary hot spots above solar farms.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that industrial progress and improving the human condition does mean that some portion of nature is going to pay a price…it’s the natural balance – just like reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone cost a bunch of deer and elk their lives.  Resources are limited and consuming those resources comes at a cost.

That being said, the wind and solar industries hold a unique position in that they are the only entities, outside of a couple of federal agencies, that are permitted to lawfully kill bald eagles (or golden eagles) without penalty (though there has been at least one permit to kill one eagle issued to an American Indian tribe in 2012).  In fact up until the middle of this month, wind companies have been allowed to kill more than a thousand bald eagles a year, per company. If you, as average Joe citizen, were to accidentally shoot one while duck hunting, federal law says you’d be facing “civil penalties (of a) maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction. Felony convictions carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment.”  And, those penalties apply not only to individuals, but companies as well.

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So, getting back to the wind and solar companies…as mentioned, these companies have been allowed to kill more than a thousand bald eagles each per year as long as they get their permits to do so; and those permits were good for 5 years.  Now, in a parting shot at our national bird, the Obama administration as just finalized a new rule (and which goes into effect the middle of this month) that ups the “taking” of bald eagles to 4,200 per year, per company, and those new permits are good for 30 years!

The wind industry will tell you that eagle deaths in wind turbines has been overstated…though they won’t tell you by how much.  In fact, nobody really knows because the feds haven’t required the reporting of eagle deaths by these companies in the past and any data that has been collected by the Department of Interior has been treated as a secret. The new rule does require them to now report, but given that they can slice and dice 4,200 bald eagles per year without penalty, no big deal if they have to report they might have killed a couple of thousand in any given year.

The mouthpiece of the wind industry, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), says this just isn’t a big deal as “more than 90 percent of wind farms do not harm any eagles at all” and “Only a handful have been lost in the four-decade history of the industry in the U.S.” Really? Then why did the wind industry lobby for a longer permit term (from 5 years to 30) and an almost 400% increase in permitted deaths, now at 4,200 per company. Those guys at the AWEA must have some damn big hands they consider numbers like that to be necessary to cover a “handful” of chopped eagles.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration, Dan Ashe, says that its likely only “hundreds” of eagles are killed a year in total (though again, nobody at the Interior Department, of which the Fish and Wildlife Service is a part, will give any one the actual numbers they might have…numbers which come from “voluntary” reporting by wind operators).  Mr. Ashe calls the new rules a conservation measure – one that balances the needs of the eagles with those of the renewables industries. I’m pretty sure the eagles would disagree.

Back to the big handed folks at the AWEA – the AP quoted Tom Kiernan, CEO of the AWEA in mid-December as saying they were still reading the rules at that time but pretty much like what they saw, because wind companies “strongly support its core purpose — eagle conservation.” Huh?

Don’t get me wrong, I like wind turbines. I think they’re cool and have since I did my 6th grade science fair project on wind energy in the very early ‘70’s (I build a tiny wind turbine using a slot car motor as the generator and a propeller from a rubber band powered airplane).  I’ve been a fan of wind energy longer than most of you readers have been alive.  But, this bullsh*t does need to be called out.  If eagle deaths haven’t been a problem like the Obama administration and AWEA are saying, why the huge increase in permitted deaths? I can somewhat understand the need for a longer term permit, as it does provide some risk mitigation for making new long-lived capital investments (of course the Obama administration has never really considered that oil and gas companies could definitely use the same regulatory surety as they try to develop US energy resources).

If what both the current administration and the AWEA are saying about eagle deaths is true, this new rule wasn’t needed.  It appears nothing more than a politicized gift for the renewables industry and parting shot at the incoming administration of Trump and his cabinet nominees, many of which have openly criticized the preferred treatment that the wind and solar industries have enjoyed.