Fears that whirling wind turbines could slaughter protected golden eagles have halted progress on a key piece of the US federal government's push to increase renewable energy on public lands, stalling plans for billions of dollars in wind farm developments.
The US Bureau of Land Management suspended issuing wind permits on public land indefinitely this summer after wildlife officials invoked a decades-old law for protecting eagles, according to reports.
The restriction has hit efforts to "fast-track" approvals for four of the seven most promising wind energy proposals in the nation, including all three in California.
Now, these and other projects appear unlikely to make the year-end deadline to potentially qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funds. If extensions aren't granted in the lame duck session of Congress, the future of many of these plans could be in doubt.
"(Companies) are waiting to know the criteria to get a permit," said Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for BLM's California desert district, of the companies hoping federal agencies will begin permitting again soon. Mr LaPre said he expects it to be "at least a year or longer" before permitting resumes.
Golden eagles are the latest roadblock to establishing wind farms on federally owned land, already an expensive process plagued by years of bureaucratic delay. The projects also have been untracked by other wildlife issues, a sluggish economy and objections by defence and aviation authorities that wind turbines interfere with the country's aged radar system.
The delays are occurring despite a target set by Congress in 2005 that directed the Interior Department to approve about 5 million homes worth of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Since then, only two of the more than 250 currently proposed wind projects have been approved and neither has been built, records and interviews show.
The four fast-track projects in jeopardy of losing stimulus funds due to eagle issues would alone generate about 416 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power roughly a half million US homes during peak usage.
There are presently 28 wind farms operating on public lands, which make up about 13 percent of the US land surface, although records show that more than 800 have been proposed in recent decades.
The vast majority of public lands regulated by the BLM are in western states, where all current onshore wind farms approved or in planning stages will be located. Offshore wind farms, like those proposed off the New England coast, are regulated by a different federal agency.