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Committee Hearing on Wind Energy and Eagles Deadlocks in Partisan Posturing

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USFWS Director Dan Ashe testifies before Congress | Photo: Library of Congress

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe delivered subpoenaed testimony Wednesday before a House committee investigating the agency's approach to wind turbine deaths of eagles and other birds. But what could have been an informative and illuminating hearing on Obama administration policy regarding wildlife and renewable energy turned out to be nearly two hours of partisan posturing instead.

Ashe, who received a subpoena earlier this month to appear before the House Natural Resources Committee, maintained that Committee's demands for information on USFWS wind and wildlife policy were interfering with his agency's enforcement of wildlife law by diverting staff resources.

According to Ashe, 125 USFWS staff were engaged full time in answering Congressional requests for information. That includes 54 special law enforcement agents, who Ashe said were taken off jobs "addressing the international criminals who are ravaging elephants and rhinos worldwide."

Committee chair "Doc" Hastings, who represents Washington's 4th Congressional district, countered that USFWS had taken an extraordinarily long time to respond to an initial subpoena filed in May 2013, to which Hastings said USFWS did not begin to respond until September, eventually supplying the Committee with heavily redacted documents.

Ashe pointed out that the broad scope of that initial subpoena meant a huge amount of staff time was involved in preparing documents. Hastings responded that staff could have saved time by not redacting the documents, to which he said Congress was legally entitled to unedited versions.

The ostensible point of Ashe's command performance before the committee was to determine whether USFWS has been going easy on wind companies that violate either the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, giving them breaks on enforcement that it wasn't offering other industries, such as oil and gas companies. It's an excellent question, and ReWire has asked that question before -- with no answers coming to our satisfaction as yet.

USFWS has taken just one legal action against wind power companies for violating bird protection laws: a much-heralded sanctioning of Duke Energy, in which that company eventually pled guilty to violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act at two of its wind facilities in Wyoming. Seventeen other investigations are pending, according to USFWS.

During the hearing, Ashe did give an answer of sorts: there was no favoritism being shown to wind companies; USFWS standard policy across the board emphasizes voluntary compliance with laws rather than law enforcement actions; and USFWS law enforcement agents "go where the evidence takes them," and that there's no political interference in enforcement actions.

That last point sounds nice on camera, though it seems not to be uniformly true, as witness last August's controversy over punishment of USFWS scientists who challenged agency policy.

But the committee's Republican members seemed to have a bit of trouble staying on that topic. After Ashe responded to the supposed point of the hearing, the Republicans devolved into broader complaints about the existence of environmental protection laws, complaints about individual protected species, and superficial anti-Obama showboating.

That last was best displayed by Louisiana Representative John Fleming, who opened his remarks by quoting an Obama White House statement about transparency and then showing a slide of a heavily redacted email provided by USFWS. Fleming asked Ashe what information Ashe could derive from the big black box on the screen, then insisted Ashe not treat the question as rhetorical, going so far as to threaten Ashe sidelong with a contempt of Congress charge.

Republican Utah Representative Rob Bishop, who graced KCET's pages earlier this week, used his floor time to complain in notably unspecific terms about the Endangered Species Act's very existence. Californian Rep Doug La Malfa went completely afield, asking Ashe for information on the pending delisting of the Threatened valley elderberry longhorned beetle, and taking the opportunity to blame the beetle's protected status for floods in the Sacramento Valley, long a right-wing talking point. (Look for more on the beetle issue in ReWild next week.)

And committee chair Doc Hastings departed from both the hearing topic and his usual demeanor, which could reasonably be described as "courtly," to threaten Ashe with another subpoena if he didn't deliver new information on the proposed uplisting of the White Bluffs bladderpod, a Threatened plant that grows only along a 17-mile stretch of the Washington bank of the Columbia River that USFWS has proposed to list as Endangered.

In sum, though the hearing was intended to focus on a single, credible, and important issue, it didn't reveal anything we didn't already know. That's probably not surprising, given the players. On the one hand, USFWS is widely regarded on the Hill and elsewhere as one of the most Byzantine and inertia-ridden federal agencies. On the other, House Republicans have spent the last five years trying to make USFWS look dazzlingly efficient by comparison.

Though the committee's ranking Democratic member Peter DeFazio spent most of his opening remarks dismissing the possibility that wind companies are getting an unfair break from USFWS, he did have a point when he characterized the majority's hearings on the issue as basically looking for sticks with which to hit the Obama administration. And he did so by making a strikingly unflattering reference to the San Diego-based Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has spent an inordinate amount of time subpoenaing administration staff and their paperwork.

"We want to pretend we're the Issa Committee, I guess... and act like Darrell Issa," said DeFazio, "which is really not something to be aspired to."

When you get right down to it, it's hard to argue with the Oregon Democrat on that one, even if you don't agree with his suggesting that defending North American eagles means ignoring illegal trade in rhino parts.

Here's the hearing in full. The action starts about 23 minutes in.

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