United States

United States

Fierce reaction to siting standards -- Federal law debate

Newly unveiled legislation that the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) had warned could bring US wind development to a "grinding halt" now seems unlikely to make it out of the House Committee on Natural Resources in its current form, says AWEA's Laurie Jodziewicz. She attended a May 23 hearing on the Energy Policy Reform and Revitalization Act of 2007, introduced a week earlier by Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia and chair of the committee.

"There are a number of members of the committee on both sides of the aisle that expressed concern about this," says Jodziewicz. And Rahall told the hearing that the act is not written in stone. "I think what we will probably see is some kind of amended language," says Jodziewicz.

According to Rahall, the bill is a comprehensive effort to "introduce greater accountability in the management of federal energy resources" and touches on issues ranging from oil and gas development on public lands to climate change mitigation. Provisions dealing with wind power would require the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish minimum standards for the siting, construction, monitoring and adaptive management of projects to minimise impacts on migratory birds, bats and other wildlife. Every project, including small residential installations, would have to be certified by the USFWS. Existing turbines would have to cease operating six months after the new rules are issued until they can be certified. Anyone operating an uncertified turbine would be subject to a $50,000 fine or a year in jail.

At the May 23 hearing, Rahall pointed to what he called the "hysterical reaction" of the wind industry to the provision. "I am not against wind energy. But what we are finding is that, as this industry grows, it is being met with increased resistance because the industry is largely unregulated," he said. "Laws such as the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act are not being fully enforced when it comes to growth of that industry." He said the bill contains provisions aimed at "enabling the wind energy industry to grow in a manner that is compatible with these federal laws, and subsequently, to flourish with less resistance and greater support from the public."

Unworkable

Jodziewicz says the industry had to react strongly to proposals that take a "one-size-fits-all, heavy-handed" approach to what are site-specific issues, and creates an unworkable bureaucracy that would delay project development across the country. "The provisions in that bill that deal with wind and wildlife issues, if passed as is, would completely shut down the industry for a while. Our experience with government agencies writing some of these rules and regulations is that it takes quite a bit of time, more time than they originally anticipated," she says.

She points to offshore wind, where the Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the US Mineral Management Service 270 days to develop regulations governing its development. "It is more likely to take two and a half years, if not longer. Until then nothing can really move offshore in the United States," she says. "To see something like that recommended for onshore projects is pretty problematic." The industry, she adds, is also being unfairly singled out by Rahall's bill. "We don't see the Fish and Wildlife Service asked to certify other energy projects."

Guidelines needed

The industry has been pressing the USFWS to create a Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee, which would create a formal process for dealing with wildlife issues. In that setting, she says, experts can develop science-based recommendations that are "in balance with what the actual risk is" and take into account what some states are already doing when it comes to the environmental assessment of wind projects.

AWEA is hoping Rahall's bill can be amended to reflect efforts that are already underway. "I think what we would like to see is something that maybe puts some timetables on the process we are trying to work through now, so that it gives a little bit more weight to the federal advisory committee."

The legislation was expected to go through a committee mark-up, where the final language is chosen, in early June.

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