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Critics say wind project adds to ‘industrialization’ of rural Wyoming

Wind turbines just west of Wyoming Highway 487 north of Medicine Bow. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Federal officials are weighing public comments on a proposed wind energy project that would add to an expanding crop of turbines in south-central Wyoming. Though the 79-turbine Two Rivers project is relatively small compared to other wind projects in the works, some worry about mounting, cumulative threats to wildlife and what critics describe as the industrialization of otherwise quaint agricultural land and pristine wildlife habitat.

Canada-based BluEarth Renewables’ 420-megawatt capacity Two Rivers Wind Energy Project would span 20,100 acres — erecting 60 wind turbines at a location north of Medicine Bow and 19 at another location about 25 miles south near Rock River, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental assessment of the project. A public comment period for the EA ended in December, and the BLM will decide whether to issue a right-of-way permit in April or May, the agency said.

BluEarth has also applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Incidental Eagle Take permits. Those would allow for up to eight bald eagle and 133 golden eagle mortalities at the Medicine Bow location, and three bald eagle and 84 golden eagle mortalities at the Rock River location over the 30-year permit terms. The project areas also overlap crucial winter ranges for pronghorn, a “central flyway” for migratory birds and a region that’s home to at least nine bat species.

Although the FWS will require a long list of pre- and post-construction measures to minimize wildlife impacts — such as buffer zones around eagle nests and construction-timing restrictions for pronghorn — the cumulative impacts of the Two Rivers project when combined with nearby existing and planned wind and solar energy developments remain largely unknown, according to federal agencies.

Regarding pronghorn, for example, “Limited information exists on the effects of wind development on big game habitat use,” the BLM states in the EA. BluEarth Renewables is helping pay for an ongoing pronghorn study in the region by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the University of Wyoming. However, “data from this multi-year, basin-wide study is not yet available for consideration in this EA,” the BLM wrote.

Despite that language, the ongoing study is guiding the developer’s plans to mitigate wildlife impacts, BluEarth Director of Regulatory and Environment Glenn Isaac said. The basin-wide study, and BluEarth’s commitment to adapting to local scientific analysis speaks to the company’s awareness of its role in cumulative impacts, Isaac said.

In addition to potential impacts to wildlife, and despite the economic and climate-related benefits of wind energy development, the sparsely populated region is quickly becoming “industrialized” to the point of spoiling the quality of life in the region, Carbon County Commission Vice Chair Sue Jones said.

“There’s wind turbines and big power lines and small power lines and little substations, and there is a point where enough is enough,” Jones said. “You’ve saturated an area and we’re almost [at a tipping point] in Carbon County.”

Industrialization

There are already 462 wind turbines within 10 miles of the Two Rivers project areas, and numerous proposals by other wind energy developers would add hundreds more in the region straddling Carbon and Albany counties. Recent permitting milestones for major new interstate transmission power lines — Gateway WestGateway South and TransWest Express — combined with federal incentives for renewable energy on federal BLM lands are unleashing a flood of ambitious plans for more wind and solar development in the region and throughout the state.

Power Company of Wyoming’s planned Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project — also in Carbon County — will erect 600 wind turbines across a public-private checkerboard of 320,000 acres south of Sinclair. It will be the largest onshore wind energy facility in the United States. Currently at more than 3,000 megawatts, wind energy accounts for nearly a third of the state’s total electrical generation capacity. Wyoming could see an additional 6,000 megawatts of new wind power capacity by 2030, according to those close to the industry.

The booming renewable energy industry puts local, conservative, pro-development officials like Jones in a difficult position, she said. Even if individual developers make good on promises to go beyond minimum requirements to avoid wildlife impacts and to meet the needs of landowners and nearby communities, the sum of dozens of industrial projects is impossible to foresee and difficult to manage.

Even residents of Medicine Bow — strongly in support of wind energy development, according to Jones — have tired of the “winky-blinky” red light beacons that warn aircraft, she said. Though it hasn’t objected to the Two Rivers project or others, Jones said, the Carbon County Commission is scrambling to initiate a new land-use-planning study to better leverage local input on where and how future industrial development occurs. 

“You can have too much of a good thing, and that’s where we’re at,” Jones said. “No amount of money replaces those things that are part of our environment, that are part of our economy, that are part of our lifestyle.”

Wildlife considerations

Though it hasn’t yet made a determination, the parameters of the incidental take permits under consideration for the Two Rivers project — up to 11 bald eagles and 217 golden eagles over 30 years — constitute what the FWS considers a potential loss that won’t threaten the sustainability of local and migratory eagle populations.

Federal law guiding such incidental take permits, specifically for golden eagles, requires “compensatory mitigation” such as retrofitting existing power poles to reduce electrocutions. “Adaptive management” — a bureaucratic term for changing operations in response to unacceptable impacts — is also required. 

Deviating from a traditional 2-mile buffer zone, the FWS recommended a 1-mile buffer zone between turbines and eagle nests for the Two Rivers project, according to the BLM’s draft assessment. As a condition of waiving the 2-mile buffer zone, the company must agree to seasonal restrictions such as shutting down wind turbines within 2 miles during golden eagle breeding and nesting seasons — which means blades couldn’t spin during daylight hours from Jan. 15 through August.

The eagle and raptor mitigation plan for the project, though not finalized, is woefully inadequate and based on projections that are not backed by enough local data, according to wildlife biologist Mike Lockhart, who tracks golden eagles in the region for the U.S. Geological Survey and Conservation Science Global. Alone, Two Rivers would encroach on some of the best golden eagle habitat in the state — particularly for breeding pairs, he said. More broadly, federal agencies are issuing incidental eagle take permits and applying eagle mitigation requirements in piecemeal fashion. The agency’s analysis also appears to be based on data that fails to account for the extent of likely but unverified eagle mortalities related to wind energy, he said.

“The rapid expansion and massive footprint of proposed, new projects will exponentially impact golden eagles and other wildlife to increased levels of additive loss never experienced before,” Lockhart wrote in comments submitted to the BLM.

It’s critical to add renewable energy resources in the fight against climate change, Lockhart told WyoFile. But it doesn’t have to come at the cost of irreplaceable wildlife habitats. The allowable eagle mortalities the FWS is considering for the Two Rivers project alone could devastate the resident population, he said.

“Their eagle conservation plan is meaningless. If the [Fish and Wildlife Service] is serious about protecting eagles, particularly breeding birds, they just got to put their foot down,” Lockhart said.

Rush to develop

Laramie resident Douglas Balmain spends a lot of time exploring the Shirley Basin north of Medicine Bow, where wind energy is fast encroaching upon an unspoiled landscape that “holds a lot of secrets,” he said. Those include rare plants and cultural artifacts.

“The more you look, the more you get to know it and the more you’re awed by it,” Balmain said.

The rush to develop renewable energy sources — particularly in Wyoming — seems to be moving toward undisturbed public lands rather than already-disturbed places, Balmain said. Addressing one problem — climate change — shouldn’t create more problems like the loss of wild landscapes and habitats, he said.

“We’re faced with a problem that we’ve been creating for centuries, and we’re trying to address it in a decade,” he said. “I just don’t have high hopes that we’re gonna get that right.”

The pace of wind energy development, along with a potential boom in solar development on public lands, is a growing concern in Albany County as well, according to Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar. 

The transition from climate-warming fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy “should have happened decades ago,” he said. Now, there’s a rush to develop without having all the necessary data to make informed decisions that allow for growth while protecting wildlife and other vital landscape characteristics.

“There are sacrifices that we don’t want to make just because we don’t have enough information or enough help to do smart development,” Gosar said.


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