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Duke Energy pleads guilty over eagle deaths at wind farms

Patrick Donnelly-Shores, former student, College of Natural Resources | December 4, 2013

In a precedent-setting agreement with the U Fish and Wildlife ServiceDuke Energy agreed to pay $1,000,000 in fines related to 160 bird deaths at two wind farms in Wyoming. A subsidiary, Duke Energy Renewables, plead guilty in Wyoming Federal District Court to violations of the Migratory Bird Act, targeted specifically in the deaths of 16 golden eagles since 2009.


A juvenile Bald Eagle aloft over the Snake River, Wyoming (Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

This author has already commented on the vagueness of current eagle-kill regulations. Most regulations to protect eagles apply to new wind farms only. Altamont Pass is one of the nation’s original wind farms, located between the Bay Area and the Cenral Valley. Due to outdated turbine design and placement techniques, it sees up to 70 eagle deaths per year. And yet current regulations simply codify these deaths by granting “variances” to wind turbine operators.

It’s clearly a double standard when Altamont continues to kill eagles, but Duke Energy is being fined a million dollars in court over a comparatively small number of eagle deaths. Notwithstanding, the move is truly groundbreaking, as energy companies have been loath to admit liability in wildlife deaths.

Rober G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s environmental and natural resources division said, “In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths.”

wind turbines

Altamont Pass wind turbines (David Laporte via Wikimedia Commons)

While this is true, it’s a little odd that these avian deaths weren’t anticipated in the environmental impact statements (EIS) for these projects. EIS’s are intended to reveal the extent of environmental impacts from development, so that policy-makers can properly judge the merits and potential problems of proposed facilities. It is a bit duplicitous for Fish and Wildlife to have signed off on the EIS in the first place, also knowing that eagle deaths would be likely.

What is needed is a more rigorous vetting of these projects. EIS’s should be more thorough, anticipating a more broad array of potential environmental impacts when assessing a project. With proper foresight, environmental issues like eagle deaths could be dealt with upstream, during the planning phase, rather than downstream, during implementation. This would result in better outcomes for all involved parties, especially the eagles.

Cross-posted from BERC Blog, published online by the Berkeley Energy & Resources Exchange, a network of UC Berkeley scholars and industry professionals.