BILLINGS, Mont. – A subsidiary of one of the largest US renewable energy providers pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and restitution after at least 150 eagles were killed at its wind farms in eight states, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
NextEra Energy subsidiary ESI Energy was also sentenced to five years probation after being charged with three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act during a court appearance in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The charges stem from the deaths of nine eagles at three wind farms in Wyoming and New Mexico.
In addition to those deaths, the company has acknowledged the deaths of golden and bald eagles at 50 wind farms affiliated with ESI and NextEra since 2012, prosecutors said. Birds were killed in eight states: Wyoming, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois.
NextEra, based in Juno Beach, Fla., bills itself as the world’s largest utility company by market value. It has more than 100 wind farms in the United States and Canada and also produces natural gas, nuclear and solar power.
Nearly all of the eagles killed at NextEra subsidiary facilities were struck by wind turbine blades, prosecutors said. Some turbines have killed multiple eagles and because carcasses are not always found, officials said the number killed was likely higher than the 150 birds cited in court documents.
Prosecutors said the company’s failure to take action to protect eagles or obtain permits to kill the birds gave it an advantage over competitors who had taken such action – even though ESI and others NextEra subsidiaries received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax credits from the wind power they produced.
NextEra spokesman Steven Stengel said the company did not apply for permits because it believed the law did not require them for unintentional bird kills. The company said its guilty plea would resolve all allegations regarding past deaths and allow it to move forward without the continued threat of prosecution.
The criminal case comes amid a push by President Joe Biden for more renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources to help reduce emissions linked to climate change. It also follows a renewed commitment by federal wildlife officials under Biden to enforce protections for eagles and other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Criminal prosecutions had been halted under former President Donald Trump for birds inadvertently killed by the industry.
It is illegal to kill or injure eagles under the Migratory Birds Act. However, a wide range of industries – from energy companies to manufacturing companies – have lobbied for years against enforcement of accidental bird deaths.
The bald eagle – the national symbol of the United States since the 1700s – saw its populations largely decimated in the last century due to harmful pesticides such as DDT and other problems. After a dramatic recovery, it was removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2007. Biologists say more than 300,000 bald eagles now roam the United States, not including the Alaska.
Golden eagles are not doing as well, with populations thought to be stable but under pressure from wind farms, collisions with vehicles, illegal shooting and poisoning from lead ammunition.
Most of the eagles killed at ESI and NextEra wind farms were golden eagles, according to court documents.
According to a study published last week by leading researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other entities.
The study concluded that golden eagle deaths are “likely to increase in the future” due to the development of wind power and other human activities.
Historically, companies have been able to avoid prosecution under the century-old Migratory Birds Treaty Act if they take steps to avoid fatalities and seek permits for those that do occur.
The charging documents say company officials, including ESI’s president, were warned eagles would be killed if the company built two wind farms in central and southeast Wyoming, and were also aware of a risk to eagles when they authorized the renewal of a wind farm in New Mexico, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) from Albuquerque.
The company proceeded anyway and sometimes ignored additional advice from federal wildlife officials on how to minimize fatalities, according to court documents.
“For more than a decade, ESI violated (wildlife) laws, taking eagles without obtaining or even applying for the necessary permit,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Environment and Resources Division. natural resources from the Department of Justice in a press release.
ESI has agreed, as part of a plea deal, to spend up to $27 million during its five-year probationary period on measures to prevent future eagle deaths. This includes shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be present.
Despite these measures, wildlife officials predict that some eagles could still die. When that happens, the company will pay $29,623 per dead eagle as part of the plea deal.
NextEra President Rebecca Kujawa said bird collisions with wind turbines are unavoidable accidents that should not be criminalized. She said the company is committed to reducing harm to wildlife from its projects.
“We disagree with the government’s underlying enforcement activity,” Kujawa said in a statement. “Building any structure, driving any vehicle, or flying any aircraft carries a possibility that accidental collisions of eagles and other birds may occur.”