Wyoming's wind energy boom is stalling amid growing confusion over state regulations designed to protect environmentally sensitive sage grouse and how those rules should apply to wind power projects.
Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy announced last week that it is indefinitely suspending plans to build a 300-megawatt-capacity wind farm that would have occupied one of dozens of state-designated "sage grouse core areas" deemed essential to protecting the imperiled bird.
In suspending its Simpson Ridge project, Horizon cited ongoing regulatory uncertainty about sage grouse protections, particularly the question of whether proper mitigation plans can be developed that allow for wind turbines to be built in sage grouse core areas.
The chicken-like bird depends on Wyoming's sagebrush-steppe habitat for shelter and food. But those same areas, especially in the south-central part of the state, are also among the best wind power development sites in the West, according to industry experts.
Horizon had spent more than a year researching sage grouse issues in the area where it planned to build its wind farm. But the company lost confidence in its mitigation plans after the Fish and Wildlife Service made clear last month that it would look very unfavorably upon any wind power project built in a core sage grouse area.
For their part, state officials are desperately trying to avoid a federal Endangered Species Act listing for the bird -- a designation that would force the adoption of broad conservation measures that could sharply curtail energy development, including wind power and conventional sources such as oil and gas.
"There's just too many unknowns out there right now," said Arlo Corwin, director of project development for Horizon's Western regional office in Portland, Ore. "We're going to continually reassess the situation and then decide what's the next step to take and when to take it."
But, he added, "The project is not dead."
Industry on the offensive
Horizon is the first company to formally suspend a project in Wyoming due to concerns about sage grouse, but other energy companies have told Wyoming leaders they will hold off on planned projects until questions over sage grouse protection are resolved.
Nationally, the wind power industry has gone on the offensive, with three of the leading renewable energy trade groups urging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to review the state's core sage grouse area policy. Many believe new sage grouse protections -- not only in Wyoming but also Idaho and other Western states -- could set back the Obama administration's agenda to significantly expand the use of renewable resources like wind and solar energy.
In the letter to Salazar last month, the leaders of three major trade groups -- the American Wind Energy Association, Interwest Energy Alliance and Renewable Northwest Project -- wrote that rendering the "rich wind energy resources" of Wyoming's core sage grouse areas off-limits to wind power investors "would ban the development of 10,000 megawatts of the highest-quality clean wind resources in Wyoming and in the nation" and would result in the loss of more than $20 billion in capital investment.
The wind power industry has focused on the state's south-central region, where sage grouse populations are highest, because it is closer to population centers like Las Vegas, where energy demand is growing fast. Also, the south-central region is flanked by the southern and central Rocky Mountains, creating conditions for strong, steady winds. Corwin, the Horizon Wind Energy official, called the site of its proposed Simpson Ridge project "one of the windiest in the company's portfolio."
But Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), whose administration has made it a priority to protect the sage grouse, in part to avoid a federal endangerment listing, rejected the argument that Wyoming developers have no option but to develop in core habitat areas. He said the impact of sage grouse protection on wind power development in the state should be short term and that the industry is welcome to build turbines in the eastern part of the state, where sage grouse are scarcer.
"The 'fear of delay' argument is probably overstated," Lance said. "Our position is, there are plenty of areas to the east with ample wind resources."
Lance also said the south-central part of the state, where the 14 million acres of sage grouse core areas are concentrated, lacks adequate transmission capacity. "The core areas issue is kind of a bump in the road," Lance said. "The bigger issue is transmission. Until we get that taken care of, the sage grouse isn't even that big of an issue."
But that is what makes the Simpson Ridge proposal such a good project, Corwin said. Unlike most proposed wind farms in the region, Horizon had secured an energy transmission agreement to carry the electricity generated at the wind farm to the bigger power grid.
A fragile bird
With 54 percent of the world's sage grouse residing in Wyoming and 82 percent of those occupying designated "core areas," state officials believe they have little choice but to steer developers away from the birds and their habitat.
Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the state that its best chance of avoiding a federal endangered species listing for the bird would come with the establishment of core habitat areas followed by policies aimed at keeping energy development away from those lands (Land Letter, June 4).
Scientists say Western sage grouse populations have plummeted from as many as 16 million birds in the early 1800s -- when they were first described by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition -- to as few as 100,000 today.
In August 2008, Freudenthal signed an executive order instructing state agencies to maintain and enhance sage grouse habitat, including by permitting new development in core population areas "only when it can be demonstrated ... that the activity will not cause declines in Greater Sage-Grouse populations."
Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said "the evidence is very suggestive that there are going to be significant impacts" from wind turbines, adding, "That's why these policies are being developed."
Yet one wind farm in a core area near the Simpson Ridge project site was already built before Freudenthal's order took effect, and dozens more have been proposed.
It is not clear whether the industry will heed Freudenthal's suggestion that they move to the the east side of the state. Only recently has the extent of the problem become evident as more wind power projects have moved through the siting and permitting process.
Steps to decision
The latest controversy started in late June when the wind industry approached Freudenthal's office with concerns about the sage grouse core areas. Among the industry's complaints were that the governor's task force charged with designating the core areas did not fully consider the wind power industry's needs when drawing boundaries.
Freudenthal reconvened the task force for further discussion, ultimately deciding that more study was necessary because so little was known about the effects of wind turbines on sage grouse. As part of its negotiations, the state agreed to do in-depth studies on two proposed wind project sites inside core sage grouse areas, said Lance, the governor's deputy chief of staff.
One of those sites was the Simpson Ridge project. The other was a site being developed by Denver-based Anschutz Corp. In addition to investigating wind turbine impacts, researchers were also planning to test various mitigation strategies, Lance said.
Controversy over the additional studies ensued, prompting Wyoming Game and Fish to seek clarification from FWS over the proper course of action. "At that time, there was a lot of concern out there that Wyoming was retreating on the core-area concept," Lance said.
In a July 7 letter to FWS's Cheyenne field office, Wyoming Game and Fish Director Steve Ferrell asked: "With the current state of knowledge, what are the [service's] thoughts on the probability of developing a wind turbine project in a core area with a suitable mitigation plan that would ensure no loss of sage grouse?"
The response from FWS Field Supervisor Brian Kelly was clear.
"Constructing wind farms in core areas, even for research purposes, prior to demonstrating it can be done with no impact to sage-grouse, negates the usefulness of the core area concept as a conservation strategy and brings into question whether adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to protect the species," he wrote.
Lance said FWS further advised that if any development were allowed in the core areas, the agency would withdraw its support for the core area concept -- a move that would undermine the state's prospects of avoiding an ESA listing for the bird.
Shortly after the exchange, Horizon decided it would suspend the Simpson Ridge project, Corwin said.
"Our company's view, and I feel comfortable speaking for the whole industry on this, is that maps are a great planning tool but not a decision-making tool," Corwin added. "It's concerning that a group of people, whatever their intentions may have been, can draw lines on a map that cause significant setbacks for good projects that otherwise might not have occurred."
Lance said the state is sympathetic to the industry's concerns. "But the reality is if the sage grouse is listed, they won't get any different answer out of the Fish and Wildlife Service," he said. "I think we can avoid sage grouse areas and still get a lot of wind out of Wyoming."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.