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Correction to This Article
The article referred to Ned Farquhar as the head of the Bureau of Land Management. Farquhar is deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in which capacity he oversees the BLM, as well as the Minerals Management Service and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
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Renewable Energy's Environmental Paradox

A proposed power line that would transmit solar and wind energy from New Mexico to Arizona would run next to wildlife habitats including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, home to sandhill cranes.
A proposed power line that would transmit solar and wind energy from New Mexico to Arizona would run next to wildlife habitats including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, home to sandhill cranes. (By Sandy Seth -- Friends Of The Bosque Del Apache Via Associated Press)

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"For all of these reasons, BLM does have a challenge because of the additional work involved," said Brady, who predicted that the agency may hire as many as 100 people just to work on renewable-energy permits. "Clearly there's an interest in expediting and streamlining the process. However, we need to make the right decisions that are based on the best science."

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One of the biggest challenges renewable-energy projects pose is that they often take up much more land than conventional sources, such as coal-fired power plants. A team of scientists, several of whom work for the Nature Conservancy, has written a paper that will appear in the journal PLoS One showing that it can take 300 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy from soy biodiesel as from a nuclear power plant. Regardless of the climate policy the nation adopts, the paper predicts that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land.

The impact will be "substantial," said Jimmie Powell, the Nature Conservancy's national energy leader and one of the paper's co-authors. "It's important to know where the footprint is going to be."

In some cases, scientists are just beginning to discover the unintended effect of projects such as wind turbines. Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse, both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.

"Nobody knows what's in the bird's head, but presumably there's an inherited behavior that allows the birds to avoid avian predators who could perch overhead," said Michael Bean, wildlife director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed requiring that developers keep wind turbines at least five miles away from a prairie grouse lek, or mating area, but the wind industry has resisted this idea.

Ditlev Engel, president and chief executive of the Danish wind-energy company Vestas, said anecdotal evidence about birds being caught in turbine blades and other environmental horror stories do not usually hold up under scrutiny.

"Do people think it's better all those birds are breathing CO2? I'm not a scientist, but I doubt it," said Engel, whose company is expanding its U.S. manufacturing and distribution operations. "Let's get the facts on the table and not the feelings. The fact is, these are not issues."

In many instances, producers of renewable energy are coordinating with environmental groups and federal agencies to try to map out the best locations for energy production, whether in the West or offshore. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society have created an online mapping project, using Google Earth, of 13 Western states to show where renewable projects would have the most impact. Out of the 860 million acres in those states, for example, there are 10,000 conservation areas, and 128 million acres are off limits to energy development.

In the case of SunZia, the company has been working to minimize the impact of its proposed transmission line. Tom Wray, manager of generation and transmission projects, said that as much as 80 percent of the line's path would parallel existing lines. He said that it would cross the Rio Grande north of the sandhill crane's flyway and that it would zig and zag to skirt environmentally sensitive areas. Every mile added to the length of the line, however, would add about $1 million to the project.

"We're not aware of any threatened or endangered species habitat or impact issues that we can't mitigate or deal with," Wray said.

Lawrence A. Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, said the new administration is eager to advance these projects without alienating environmentalists. "The answer from President Obama can't be no," he said. "They've got to find a way to say yes."


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