By DINA CAPPIELLO
WASHINGTON — A conservation group sued the Obama administration Thursday over a new federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to seek approval to kill or injure eagles for 30 years.
The group argues that the rule, which extended by 25 years the length of time companies may kill or injure eagles without fear of prosecution, is illegal because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to evaluate the consequences and ensure it would not damage eagle populations. The Obama administration classified the rule as an administrative change, excluding it from a full environmental review.
“In the government’s rush to expand wind energy, shortcuts were taken in implementing this rule that should not have been allowed,” said Michael Hutchins, the national coordinator of the conservancy’s wind energy program.
Under President Barack Obama, wind has exploded as a pollution-free alternative to energy sources that produce the gases blamed for global warming. But it is not without environmental costs.
An AP investigation last year documented dozens of eagle deaths at wind farms, findings later confirmed by federal biologists. Each one is a violation of federal law, but the Obama administration has only prosecuted one company, Duke Energy Corp., for killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms.
The wind-energy industry sought the change to reduce its liability.
According to the industry, the rule helps protect eagles because companies obtaining permits would be required to make efforts to avoid killing protected birds in exchange for legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects.
The permits would be reviewed every five years and adjusted if necessary. But the conservation claims in its lawsuit those reviews would be internal and not subject to public input.
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 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
No wind energy company has obtained the five-year permits that have been available since 2009, putting the companies at legal risk and discouraging private investment in renewable energy.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday it would not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court in San Jose, Calif.