This story was updated at 7:15 p.m.
The Obama administration announced today it has granted final approval of the Alta East Wind Project in Southern California that includes a first-ever authorization allowing the project proponent to injure or kill an endangered condor during the 30-year life of the project.
The Bureau of Land Management's announcement that it has approved a record of decision (ROD) and plans to issue a right of way grant authorizing the 153-megawatt project touched off a wave of concern among environmental groups, who fear that authorizing the "take" of a California condor could set a dangerous precedent.
"We're very concerned about the precedent this sets," said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. "The potential threat to condors from wind projects really needs to be considered for the whole area, not just on a project-by-project basis."
The incidental take of a condor was authorized in a biological opinion of the project conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service. BLM said today that the service believes New York-based Terra-Gen Power LLC, which owns project proponent Alta Windpower Development, has put in place enough safeguards to ensure the recovery of the California condor will not be jeopardized.
The condor mitigation measures to be installed by Terra-Gen Power include very high frequency (VHF) equipment that can pick up signals from radio telemetry devices placed on all California condors that allow the wind-farm operators to detect condors as far as 16 miles away. The detection of condors within 2 miles would signal to operators to reduce wind-turbine speeds to 15 miles per hour, said Amy Krause, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif.
In what BLM calls "the unlikely event" that a condor is struck by a wind-turbine blade, the agency would require Alta Windpower Development to operate only at night, when condors are not active, and require BLM to reopen consultation with Fish and Wildlife.
"Kind of back to the drawing board," Krause said.
In addition to the condor take authorization, Terra-Gen Power has also applied to Fish and Wildlife for a take permit for golden eagles, although the service has not approved that request.
Ren Lohoefener, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife's Pacific Southwest Region, said he's confident the wind farm will have no major impact on the ongoing recovery of the California condors.
"This is a positive step as we continue to support the conservation and recovery of condors," Lohoefener said in a statement. "This project provides a basis for future consultations and an opportunity to engage other renewable energy companies and stakeholders with best practices that support condor recovery."
The final Alta East project plan that BLM is approving is significantly scaled back from the original proposal to string together as many as 106 wind turbines across more than 2,500 acres of mostly public land in Kern County. The authorized project will cover about 2,000 acres of BLM land.
The smaller footprint avoids impacts to some desert tortoise and Joshua tree woodland habitat adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail on the north end of the project site. In addition, it reduces impacts to golden eagles by eliminating nine proposed turbines on the north end that were about 2 miles from three active nests.
The Alta East wind project would be the second-largest wind farm on federal land in California, ranking behind the 315 MW Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Facility approved last year on more than 10,000 acres of BLM land in Southern California's Imperial County.
Alta East would also be the eighth commercial-scale wind project approved by the Obama administration since 2009.
It is one of six priority wind power projects that the Interior Department announced in February that it intends to move through federal permitting this year and next. The six projects would have a total capacity to produce more than 1,100 MW of electricity, or enough to power more than 380,000 homes.
The Alta East project comes at a time of record growth for the wind industry. The American Wind Energy Association says 2012 was the industry's best year ever, with 13,124 MW of newly installed wind power capacity.
Nationwide, there is now more than 60,000 MW of installed wind power capacity -- enough to power nearly 15 million homes, or every house in Colorado, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio, according to AWEA.
The Obama administration since 2009 has now approved 38 solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering roughly 240,000 acres of federal land with a total capacity to power nearly 4 million homes.
"Today's approval of the Alta East Wind Project builds upon [Interior's] commitment to expand renewable energy on public lands in a responsible way," BLM California State Director Jim Kenna said today in a statement. "Not only does this project create good jobs and generate clean and reliable power, but we've also worked closely with the company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the protection of eagles and California Condors."
But it's the incidental take of condors that has drawn a lot of concern.
Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced two weeks ago that the operators of the Alta East project would not be prosecuted for killing a condor, though conservation leaders had hoped BLM would not approve (Greenwire, May 13).
In making that decision, Ashe noted that populations of California condors are on the rise and that Terra-Gen Power was taking significant steps to avoid injuring or harming condors.
In addition to the VHF equipment, Terra-Gen will contribute $100,000 a year for the life of the project to the Condor Recovery Program to implement a lead abatement program. Ingesting lead from spent ammunition is the single biggest cause of wild condor deaths.
California imposed a ban on the use of lead ammunition within the condor's range in 2007, and Arizona has had a voluntary lead-reduction program in place since 2005. But lead poisoning from consuming contaminated big game carcasses or gut piles is still the primary killer of the birds (Greenwire, April 30).
The contribution will also help fund research on further resolving the potential wind energy and condor conflict and other appropriate recovery actions for the 30-year life of the project.
Belenky, the CBD attorney, acknowledged that Terra-Gen Power's use of VHF and other strategies to reduce risks to the condors are "significant measures."
"I think the company has tried to do the right thing given those issues, but then on the other hand there is the fact this would set a precedent," she said.
But she said BLM and Fish and Wildlife need to take a step back and evaluate impacts to condors on a regional basis. She notes that the area contains a number of existing and proposed wind projects that also threaten the condor.
"This particular project may not be of the highest concern because they did do some things to reduce their risks, both in pulling back some turbines, which we appreciated, and putting in these measures," she said. "But this is a species that people have put a lot of time and energy and funding into restoring. And we're very concerned that projects would be killing a condor."