WASHINGTON - Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the Obama administration said Friday that it would allow companies to kill or injure eagles without the fear of prosecution for up to three decades.
The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation's wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles being killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.
An investigation by the Associated Press earlier this year documented the illegal killing of eagles around wind farms, the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute such cases, and its willingness to keep the scope of the eagle deaths secret. President Obama has championed the pollution-free energy, nearly doubling America's wind power in his first term as a way to tackle global warming.
But all energy has costs, and the administration has had to accept the not-so-green sides of green energy as a means to an end.
The new rule will provide legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects if companies obtain permits and make efforts to avoid killing protected birds.
The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they killed. Now, such reporting is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.
"This is not a program to kill eagles," said John Anderson, the director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. "This permit program is about conservation."
But conservation groups, which have been aligned with the industry on other issues, said the decision by the Interior Department sanctioned the killing of an American icon.
"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy," Audubon president and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement, "Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check."
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 miles per hour at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
Flying eagles don't look up. As they scan below for food, they don't notice the blades until it is too late.
It's unclear what toll, if any, wind-energy firms are having on eagle populations locally or regionally. Gunshots, electrocutions, and poisonings almost certainly kill more bald and golden eagles than wind farms. But the toll could grow along with the industry.