WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is revising a federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to operate high-speed turbines for up to 30 years, even if means killing or injuring thousands of federally protected bald and golden eagles.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, wind companies and other power providers could kill or injure up to 4,200 bald eagles a year without penalty — nearly four times the current limit. Golden eagles could only be killed if companies take steps to minimize the losses, for instance, by retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the proposal will “provide a path forward” for maintaining eagle populations while also spurring development of a pollution-free energy source that’s intended to ease global warming, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan.
Ashe said the 162-page proposal would protect eagles and at the same time “help the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels” such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming.
“There’s a lot of good news in here,” Ashe said in an interview, calling the plan “a great tool to work with to further conservation of two iconic species.”
The proposal sets objectives for eagle management, addresses how bird populations will be monitored and provides a framework for how the permitting system fits within the agency’s overall eagle management, Ashe said.
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Blades can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the United States, and 40,000 golden eagles.
It’s unclear what toll wind energy companies are having on eagle populations, although Ashe said as many 500 golden eagles a year are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks. Thousands more are killed by gunshots and poisonings.
Since 2013, two golden eagle deaths have been reported at the Spring Valley Wind Energy facility, a wind farm about 260 miles northeast of Las Vegas that sells power to NV Energy.
Concerns over potential eagle deaths have stoked opposition to a similar wind-energy development proposed near Searchlight, leading to additional regulatory review of the project.
Reporting of eagle mortality is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.
Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period. Officials hope to issue a final rule this fall.
Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.