On January 18, just three days before being replaced by the Trump administration, the Obama administration gave final approval for the first phase of construction of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming.
If completed, the project will be the largest wind power facility in North America.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved construction of the first 500 turbines to begin in 2018, with completion of the first phase scheduled for 2020. The project will have 1,000 turbines covering 220,000 acres. Most of the project will be on BLM lands, which is why there was a need for the agency’s approval.
The first phase, some 75,000 acres, will use state lands and parts of a private ranch owned by Denver-based Anschutz Corporation, the parent company of the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW).
Eagle Kills Approved
PCW first applied to BLM for the project in 2008. Environmental concerns delayed BLM’s approval, and BLM issued its final Environmental Impact Statement on December 9, 2016, and its finding the project would result in no significant environmental impacts on January 18, the day Phase 1 was approved for construction.
To gain approval for the project, PCW had to get permits to “take”—kill, injure, or force them from their nests—federally protected bald and golden eagles. Concurrent with BLM’s greenlighting of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the issuance of two permits: one pertaining to the construction of the first 500 turbines and the other covering the first five years of the project’s operation. Under those permits, PCW will be allowed to take up to two bald eagles and 14 golden eagles each year.
PCW was required to develop separate conservation plans for bald eagles, golden eagles, other migratory birds, and bats in order to reduce its impact on those species and receive 30-year take permits. BLM is also requiring PCW to develop additional compensatory mitigation plans to offset the project’s harm to golden eagles, including retrofitting thousands of older power poles still in use that pose electrocution hazards for eagles.
Sage Grouse Habitat
PCW was also told it must modify its development plan to protect greater sage grouse habitat. The greater sage grouse is a ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird whose habitat includes the area where the facility is situated. Citing declining numbers of greater sage grouse, in 2015, BLM imposed a package of 15 amended land-management plans throughout the bird’s 167-million-acre, 11-state habitat.
The sage grouse is found on various locations in the site where the wind installation was initially proposed. BLM forbade PCW from erecting turbines at locations where the bird is prevalent, including 30,000 acres on the Anschutz ranch which PCW has designated a “turbine-no-build” area.
‘Politically Favored’ Energy
Chris Warren, vice president for communications at the Institute for Energy Research, says the Obama administration did not hold renewable-energy projects to the same environmental-protection standards imposed on fossil-fuel energy companies.
“Under the previous administration, both wind and solar facilities were given special treatment in terms of their impact on wildlife, such as eagles and bats,” Warren said. “They were essentially given a pass from normal environmental standards because they were a politically favored source of energy under the Obama administration.
“On top of that, taxpayers are forced to foot the bill through massive subsidies,” said Warren. “These are legitimate concerns with renewable energy that shouldn’t be ignored.”
John Droz, a North Carolina-based energy analyst, says the public has not been apprised of the real cost of wind energy.
“This large project reminds us that we continue to wait for the first time when a comprehensive and objective analysis of the real financial cost of industrial wind energy is presented to the public,” Droz said. “So far, the wind-energy promoters are simply repeating the party line, which is just [the benefit] side of the economics equation.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.