Bird Conservation Groups File Lawsuit to Improve New York Renewable Energy Regulation

Law to accelerate renewable energy development needlessly puts birds at risk

Media Contact: Jordan Rutter, ABC Director of Public Relations| jerutter@abcbirds.org | @JERutter

The Golden Eagle, listed as Endangered in New York, is among the species at risk from poorly sited wind turbines. Photo by Scott Mirror/Shutterstock

(Washington, D.C., June 29, 2021) American Bird Conservancy (ABC) today filed suit (Case 905502-21), along with other bird conservation groups and other stakeholders, against the New York Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) for failure to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) during development of regulations to enforce the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act. The Act, or Section 94-c, has the laudable goal of rapidly expanding renewable energy production in the state to combat climate change. In the rush to implement the Act, however, critical shortcuts were taken in the environmental and public review processes, resulting in regulations that provide far too little protection for at-risk birds.

“The Act and associated regulations had the potential to provide a model for rapid, yet environmentally responsible, wind energy project development,” says Joel Merriman, ABC's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign Director. “Instead, unrealistic timelines were entrenched, too few wildlife species were offered protection, and many industry best practices were ignored.”

During a public comment period, bird conservation groups provided extensive recommendations for minimizing avoidable impacts to birds. These were overwhelmingly ignored.

While they provide clean, carbon-free energy, wind turbines in the U.S. kill more than a half-million birds each year. Turbines constructed in remote areas often require new transmission lines to be added to the energy grid, causing additional bird mortality from collisions and electrocution. And, for some bird species, the construction of wind facilities renders otherwise suitable habitat unusable.

“The situation with Section 94-c demonstrates why environmental laws are so crucial,” says Steve Holmer, ABC's Vice President for Policy. “Well-established best practices exist for wind energy development. The Section 94-c regulations did not take these into account and need to be improved to ensure bird populations are not harmed. This is especially important given the loss of nearly 3 billion birds, or almost 30 percent, from North America's bird populations over the past 50 years.”

New York has rich birdlife. Large tracts of forest in the Adirondack Mountains host uncommon species like the Bicknell's Thrush. The state's remaining grasslands support rarities like the Henslow's Sparrow and the rapidly declining Grasshopper Sparrow, populations of which have dropped by more than 97 percent. The eastern population of the Golden Eagle funnels through the state's mountains during migration. And coastal areas host threatened birds such as Roseate Terns, Piping Plovers, and Red Knots.

“New York has been a champion for birds in many arenas,” says Merriman. “We would hope to see that leadership continue with the state's approach to renewable energy development. But with Section 94-c, the pendulum has swung too far.”

The first wind project being considered under Section 94-c is Heritage Wind in Orleans County. The proposed site is in a major migratory pathway for birds and adjacent to a wetland complex that supports nesting Bald Eagles and many uncommon species, including the state-listed Short-eared Owl and Black Tern.

“The developer of the Heritage Wind project conducted inadequate field studies to inform project planning and offers far too little in the way of minimizing impacts,” says Merriman. “It's unclear if changes can or will be made to the project under the new regulations.”

“We need renewable energy to combat climate change,” says Merriman. “At the same time, it's vital that this development be done in a way that minimizes environmental impacts.”

ABC and other litigants, including Delaware-Otsego Audubon, Genessee Valley Audubon, and the Rochester Birding Association, are being represented by The Zoghlin Group, PLLC.

ABC thanks the Leon Levy Foundation for its support of ABC's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign.

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American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).

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