By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service thought it would be a breeze to get interested parties together earlier this month to work out some kinks in its guidelines on how to build wind turbines with minimal harm to bats and birds.
With oil and natural gas prices spiking, wind power is a growth industry. The American Wind Energy Association said some 15,000 turbines in 30 states are generating wind power. Enough units to serve 650,000 homes were installed last year, and wind is expected to provide 6 percent of the nation's electrical needs by 2020.
But the towers supporting the giant windmills can reach more than 400 feet above ridgelines, and several wind projects have been linked to the deaths of thousands of bats and a substantial number of birds. Industry says the harm to birds is minimal, compared with damage done by cats, plate-glass windows and pesticides. It estimates that two to three birds per turbine are killed annually, a figure that avian experts dispute as too low.
Against this backdrop, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in January that it would become part of a "National Wind Siting/Wildlife Collaborative." There was new science on the topic, and the agency wanted to review it with the wind power industry, state representatives and environmentalists. The first meeting, scheduled for Feb. 9, would be an update to the guidelines process the agency completed in 2005.
The guidelines are important because they represent the federal government's views on evaluation of potential sites, the location and design of turbines, and follow-up monitoring. Compliance is voluntary, but companies that ignore the rules could be in violation of laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or the Endangered Species Act, which protects many species of birds.
During the process of developing the guidelines, industry complained it did not have enough say, as did some environmental groups.
"In light of that, we decided to try to establish a collaboration with industry, state representatives and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to discuss how to move forward with the goal of avoiding or minimizing impact on wildlife," said Megan Durham , spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The group included the agency, the American Wind Energy Association, the wind power industry trade group, the National Audubon Society , Clean Energy States Alliance , and several others.
Laurie Jodziewicz , spokeswoman for the industry group, said the point of the policy group was to "develop guidelines that everyone could agree on."
But National Wind Watch , a Massachusetts nonprofit organization that opposes wind power, and organizations such as the Humane Society disagreed. National Wind Watch, which was not involved in starting the policy group, worried that the guidelines would be weakened as a result of the meetings.
Suspicions about the intent of the meeting were fueled by a statement explaining the new group's objectives. "The outcome of the collaborative process is not predetermined, and may result in a product that is significantly different than the existing USFWS Interim Guidance," said a January statement issued by the new group.
"We are pretty concerned about what is going on there," said Lisa Linowes , spokeswoman for the opposition group. "It appeared there was an effort to change the guidelines after the fact and not make it a very public process."
Linowes said National Wind Watch found out about the meeting only indirectly. In a Jan. 31 letter sent to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton , the group contended that any gatherings of industry and other "stakeholders" require more public participation from a broader cross section of interest groups.
Fish and Wildlife officials said the proposed meeting was announced at several public events related to wind power issues held around the country. There also was an extensive list of groups and government representatives invited to the first meeting. But the agency did not issue a news release about the group's existence.
Sharon B. Young , marine issues field director for the Humane Society, said she tried to become a member but was unsuccessful. Instead, her group was invited to attend two days before the meeting, too late for her to fly to Washington, she said.
"It's like saying, 'I'm having a birthday party tonight; you want to come?' " Young said.
The role that regulators will play in this dispute is being watched closely by lawmakers, lobbyists and citizen groups.
For example, Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) wrote to Norton in 2004 and called the guidelines "flawed' and a possible detriment to further wind power development. On the other hand, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) wants to make it harder to build more turbines. "The windmills we are talking about today are not your grandmother's windmills," he said, introducing a bill to eliminate federal subsidies for wind power and give local authorities more power in approving sites.
There are fissures among environmental groups on the issue. Many support wind energy because it is "green." But National Wind Watch does not consider the Audubon Society's role in the policy group representative of its concerns.
Tim Cullinan , director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society, acknowledged there is a broad range of opinion among environmental groups. His intent, he said, was to open a dialogue among the parties. "The dilemma we faced was that if Audubon did not get involved, there was still the risk of an inside job [on the part] of the wind power industry putting pressure on Fish and Wildlife."
Agency officials said they had no preconceptions about the outcome of the meeting. "We made it clear nothing would be adopted as policy without independent notice, comment and review," said Brian Millsap , chief of Fish and Wildlife's division of migratory bird management.
But in response to the bluster of the opponents, the agency canceled the meeting while Interior Department attorneys mull what to do next.