In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic wind turbines are killing about 440,000 birds per year. Since then, the wind industry has been riding a rapid growth spurt.
But that growth has slowed dramatically due to a tsunami of cheap natural gas and hefty taxpayer subsidies. Even worse: that cheap gas looks like it will last for many years, and Congress has, so far, been unwilling to extend the 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour subsidy for wind operators that expires at the end of this year.
And now, the wind industry is facing yet another big challenge: increasing resistance from environmental groups who are concerned about the effect that unrestrained construction of wind turbines is having on birds and bats. Ninety environmental groups, led by the American Bird Conservancy, have signed onto the "bird-smart wind petition" which has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
It's about time. Over the past two decades, the federal government has prosecuted hundreds of cases against oil and gas producers and electricity producers for violating some of America's oldest wildlife-protection laws: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act. But the Obama administration -- like the Bush administration before it -- has never prosecuted the wind industry despite myriad examples of widespread, unpermitted bird kills by turbines. A violation of either law can result in a fine of $250,000 and/or imprisonment for two years.
But amidst all the hoopla about "clean energy" the wind industry is being allowed to continue its illegal slaughter of some of America's most precious wildlife. Even more perverse: taxpayers are subsidizing that slaughter.
Last June, Louis Sahagun, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, reported that about 70 golden eagles per year are being killed by the wind turbines at Altamont Pass, located about 20 miles east of Oakland. A 2008 study funded by the Alameda County Community Development Agency estimated that about 2,400 raptors, including burrowing owls, American kestrels, and red-tailed hawks -- as well as about 7,500 other birds, nearly all of which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treat Act -- are being killed every year by the turbines at Altamont.
A pernicious double standard is at work here and it riles Eric Glitzenstein, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who wrote the petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the American Bird Conservancy. He told me, "It's absolutely clear that there's been a mandate from the top" echelons of the federal government not to prosecute the wind industry for violating wildlife laws.
Glitzenstein comes to this issue from the left. Before forming his own law firm, he worked for Public Citizen, an organization created by Ralph Nader. But when it comes to wind energy, "Many environmental groups have been claiming that too few people are paying attention to the science of climate change, but some of those same groups are ignoring the science that shows wind energy's negative impacts on bird and bat populations."
That willful ignorance may be ending. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife recently filed a lawsuit against officials in Kern County, California, in an effort to block the construction of two proposed wind projects -- North Sky River and Jawbone -- due to concerns about their impact on local bird populations. The groups oppose the projects because of their proximity to the deadly Pine Tree facility, which the Fish and Wildlife Service believes is killing 1,595 birds, or about 12 birds per megawatt of installed capacity, per year.
The only time a public entity has pressured the wind industry for killing birds occurred in 2010, when California brokered a $2.5 million settlement with NextEra Energy Resources for bird kills at Altamont. The lawyer on that case: former attorney general and current Gov. Jerry Brown, who's now pushing the Golden State to get 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
Despite the toll that wind turbines are taking on wildlife, the wind industry wants to keep its get-out-of-jail-free card. Last May, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed new guidelines for wind turbine installations. But the American Wind Energy Association quickly panned the proposed rules as "unworkable."
Billions of dollars are at stake. And the wind industry is eager to downplay the problem of bird and bat kills. But the issue, which clearly has the Obama administration in a tight spot, is not going away. The Sierra Club now favors mandatory rules for wind turbine siting.
And while wildlife protection is essential, the broader issue of equitable treatment under the law may be more important. For years, says Glitzenstein, the Interior Department has been telling the wind industry: "'No matter what you do, you need not worry about being prosecuted.' To me, that's appalling public policy."
Disclosure: Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which over the past ten years, has obtained about 2.5 percent of its budget from the hydrocarbon sector.
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