Pit Geese

Snow geese fly along the bank of the Berkeley Pit’s toxic waters Wednesday flying toward the south rim of the pit. Rep. Liz Cheney introduced legislation to expunge risks to companies that kill birds

Walter Hinick, The Montana Standard

Rep. Liz Cheney doesn’t want industry prohibited from doing business for fear of killing birds and being penalized for it.

The congresswoman introduced an amendment to that effect in the SECURE Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that would, among other things, allow for more state control of oil and gas activities on federal land. It passed in the House Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday.

The amendment, however, will have a different home, tucked into the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which turns 100 next year.

The measure answers a complaint from the oil and gas industry, and more recently the solar industry. They don’t want liability for accidentally killing migrating birds, whether by an oil field disposal pit or a solar farm.

The amendment is short and in keeping with views held by the Trump Administration that regulations burdensome to industry should be avoided. That stance has already impacted regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Interior Department.

A free pass

So what does the bird amendment achieve?

To conservationists it’s carte blanche for industry to be careless, and they’ve pledged to fight back.

“Rep. Cheney is giving oil and gas companies and other industries a free pass to kill birds with impunity,” said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society in a statement Wednesday. The environmental group is calling Cheney’s proposal the “bird-killer amendment.”

In Wyoming, the proposed change will largely be relevant for the wind, oil and gas industries, said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for Audubon.

And that’s not good for Wyoming birds, he said.

“What it means is if you kill birds in the commission of industry, you are held harmless,” he said.

In a statement Wednesday, the Audubon Society pointed to the number of ways industry contributes to bird deaths, including 500,000 to 1 million birds a year killed in oil waste pits and some 175 million birds annually killed by power lines, according to according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.

In 2014, PacifiCorp, the parent company of Wyoming’s largest utility paid $2.5 million in fines for violating the Migratory Act after more than 370 birds including eagles, wrens and sparrows were found killed at the company’s Seven Mile and Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind farms.

For environmental groups this is simply about protecting birds, said Rutledge of the Audubon Society, noting that if the amendment stands, industry can be careless, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

Icing on the cake

As conservationists attempt to protect one of their cherished regulations, industry is pleased to have its requests answered in Washington.

Audubon is confusing the bird issue, and the previous presidential administration did the same, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the outspoken oil and gas group Western Energy Alliance.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was meant to stop poaching and sale of birds, she said. It’s been broadened to create protections for birds that aren’t threatened species, she said.

“Those restrictions that reduce jobs and economic opportunity are justified when birds are truly threatened or endangered and any impact can threaten their survival, but not for species that are not endangered,” she said. “That is a clear violation of both [the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Birds Treaty Act] which Rep. Cheney’s amendment rightly addresses.”

But lifting the liability for killing birds in the process of doing business is icing on a bigger cake.

Industry is leaning toward state leadership on oil and gas exploration and production, and the SECURE Act is favorable for the WEA.

While Cheney’s efforts address the rising conflicts in Wyoming over federal permitting delays, leadership in the state regulatory agency has said the details need to be worked out before the commission formalizes an opinion.

The SECURE Act passed out of committee and is headed to larger discussion in the House.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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