Should industrial wind facilities have to pay a $100,000 fine – as oil and gas companies do – if they kill an endangered species? Many environmental activists think so. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does not.
In a reversal of its official opinion, the FWS recently announced “it will not penalize the operator of a Southern California wind operator if its turbines kill or injure one California condor,” reports environmental journalist Chris Clarke in ReWire.
With fewer than 250 birds in the wild, the condor is one of the world’s most critically endangered animals, and industrial wind is encroaching on the bird’s range in the Techachpi Mountains. From the article:
FWS biologist Ray Bransfield told ReWire that FWS has completed its Biological Opinion (BiOp) on condors for Google and Citicorp’s Alta East project, which would be built and operated by wind developer Terra-Gen. Occupying 2,592 acres, mostly on public lands, near the intersection of state routes 14 and 58 in Kern County, Alta East would generate a maximum of 318 megawatts of electrical power with 106 wind turbines, each with 190-foot-long blades.
FWS’s BiOp for Alta East includes an “incidental take statement” that in effect allows one “lethal take” of a California condor. “Incidental take” of a protected species is a term of art covering any kind of injury, harassment or disturbance, or even habitat damage that a project causes inadvertently. “Lethal take” is when the species in question dies.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has yet to approve the project. If it does, and a single condor is killed during the 30-year operating life of the facility, the FWS would have to undertake a “formal review” of the project’s impact on condors. Recent history suggests this safeguard is unlikely to be worth much, Clarke argues:
Endangered species advocates were hoping for a “jeopardy” finding when solar developer BrightSource started finding hundreds more federally threatened desert tortoises on the site of its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System than were forecast in that project’s BiOp. The original BiOp and take permit allowed BrightSource to kill, harm, harass, or disturb no more than 40 tortoises. Once it was clear there were a lot more tortoises than that onsite, BLM estimated as many as 2,862 tortoises (including eggs) could be harmed by the project. Despite the 70-fold increase in potential “takes,” FWS merely required a few changes to the project’s tortoise relocation plan and issued a revised BiOp that allowed construction to proceed.
The Alta East project may “take” many more than one condor in 30 years. Condors, notes Clarke, “fly slowly, their 9-foot wingspans making them somewhat slow to maneuver. They tend to soar while watching the ground, searching for activity of other scavengers. This habit makes them vulnerable to injury from blade tips approaching from above, often at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour.”
In addition, condors are ”intensely social animals.” Where one goes to feed on carrion, others quickly assemble in “huge flocks,” as Clarke shows in photos taken just minutes apart. [click to continue…]