WASHINGTON — Birds and bats have a powerful advocate in the new Congress, and he is making the wind energy industry nervous.
Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is pushing legislation that would more strictly regulate wind energy to protect birds, bats and other wildlife killed when they fly into the giant turbines.
Wind energy advocates say the bill could significantly cripple the burgeoning industry and they brand the measure as “anti-wind.”
A release from the American Wind Energy Association last month said Rahall’s plan could “essentially outlaw” the generation of electricity from new wind power plants in the United States.
Political debate over wind projects has intensified as the industry has seen major growth in recent years. According to the association, wind power is growing 25 percent to 30 percent annually.
Congress has encouraged this renewable energy as oil prices have skyrocketed, creating incentives for the industry and promoting its benefits. But some lawmakers are concerned about the effects on wildlife.
Rahall’s proposal, included in a larger energy bill, would direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to publish standards for siting, construction and monitoring of wind projects so that they do not harm wildlife. Violators could go to prison.
After opposition from some members of his committee, Rahall has said he will revisit the legislation. The wind provisions are “not locked in stone,” he said.
Still, Rahall, D-W.Va., believes more regulation would be a good idea.
“I suspect that wind projects are on a regular basis in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, yet no enforcement action is being taken,” he said at a recent hearing on the issue.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for wind developers in the Mid-Atlantic region, says the industry has frequent discussions with government regulators and environmental groups.
Rahall “is throwing out the entire haystack because there’s a needle in there somewhere,” he said. “There are plenty of checks on the system that are making us develop in a smart way.”
Some in coal-rich West Virginia disagree.
John Stroud, the co-chairman of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, is fighting a wind power project in Rahall’s district, saying it will spoil scenic views and endanger bats.
“Something like this is greatly necessary because these concerns are generally ignored,” Stroud says. “Most states don’t have much regulation.”
John Kostyack, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, says his group is working with Rahall to fine-tune the legislation.
“We think that any energy company, even in an industry we strongly support, needs to grow responsibly,” he said,
Last month, a National Research Council panel said the risk to birds and bats is not yet completely understood. That report also noted that wind farms could generate up to 7 percent of U.S. electricity in 15 years.
It is unclear if Rahall’s position could pass muster in the Senate.
A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the senator is supportive of the industry and will remain so.
GOP Sen. John Thune, who has introduced legislation that would give the industry more incentives, was more blunt.
“This proposal is badly misguided and is a step in the wrong direction,” said Thune of South Dakota, one of the windier states. “Congress should not be blocking the development of one of the nation’s cleanest energy resources ... I will fight any efforts to stymie its development because of unfounded concerns for bats and birds.”
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