Bird Kills? What Bird Kills?

By Robert Bryce, Energy Tribune Editor

Ed. Note: A shorter version of this story appeared in the
Wall Street Journal on September 8.

On August 13, ExxonMobil pled guilty in federal court to charges that it killed 85 birds – all of which were protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The company agreed to pay $600,000 in fines and fees for the bird kills, which occurred after the animals came in contact with hydrocarbons in uncovered tanks and waste water facilities on company properties located in five western states.

The ExxonMobil prosecution is the latest of hundreds of cases that federal officials have brought against oil and gas companies over the last two decades for violations of the MBTA, a statute on the books since 1918.

Those cases were obviously justified. So, too, was the recent MBTA case against Oregon-based PacifiCorp. On July 10, the electric utility agreed to pay $1.4 million in fines and restitution for killing 232 eagles in Wyoming over the past two years. The birds were electrocuted by the company’s poorly-designed power lines.

But the ExxonMobil and PacifiCorp prosecutions bring up an obvious question: why aren’t wind power companies being prosecuted for their bird kills? A July 2008 study of the wind farm at Altamont Pass, California, estimated the farm’s turbines were killing 80 golden eagles per year. Those birds are protected by the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which was enacted in 1940. In addition to the eagles, the study, funded by the Alameda County Community Development Agency, estimated that about 10,000 other birds — nearly all of which are protected under the MBTA – are being whacked every year at Altamont.

To recap: ExxonMobil was prosecuted for killing 85 birds over a five-year period. The wind turbines at Altamont, located about 30 miles east of Oakland, are killing more than 100 times as many birds as were Exxon’s tanks, and they are doing it every year. Furthermore, the bird kill problems at Altamont have been repeatedly documented by biologists since at least 1994.

To be sure, the number of birds killed by wind turbines is highly variable. And biologists believe Altamont, which uses older turbine technology, may be the worst example. That said, the carnage at Altamont likely represents only a fraction of the number of birds being killed. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy estimates that US wind turbines are killing between 75,000 and 275,000 birds per year. And yet, the Department of Justice won’t press charges. “Somebody has given the wind industry a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Fry told me. “If there were even one prosecution, then the wind companies would come in line.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, each megawatt of installed wind power capacity results in the killing of between one and six birds per year. At the end of 2008, the US had about 25,000 megawatts of wind turbines. By 2030, environmental and lobby groups are pushing for the US to be producing 20% of its electricity from wind. Meeting that goal, according to the Department of Energy, will require the US to have about 300,000 megawatts of wind capacity, a 12-fold increase over 2008 levels. If that target is achieved, it will likely mean the killing of at least 300,000 birds per year by wind turbines.

The Wind Energy Association says that bird kills by wind turbines are a “very small fraction of those caused by other commonly accepted human activities and structures — house cats kill an estimated 1 billion birds annually.” That may be true. But cats rarely get frog-marched to the courthouse in handcuffs. Nor are cats killing many golden eagles.

Bats are also affected by wind turbines. One study of a 44-turbine wind farm in West Virginia found that up to 4,000 of the flying mammals had been killed by the turbines in 2004 alone. A 2008 study of dead bats found on the ground near a Canadian wind farm found that many of the bats had been killed by a change in air pressure near the turbine blades in a condition known as “barotrauma.”

Bat Conservation International, an Austin-based group aimed at preserving bats and their habitats, has called the proliferation of wind turbines “a lethal crisis.” And it points out that very few studies have been done on the hundreds of wind farms that have been installed over the past few years. Bat Conservational International says that with thousands of bats being killed per year by wind turbines, “given bats’ low reproductive rates, kills of such magnitude could put entire species at risk.” The group says that “minimizing harmful impacts to wildlife is an essential element of ‘green energy’ and that developers of wind energy” should do more to find methods to reduce the toll that wind is taking on bats.

Twenty years ago, I published several articles about the pollution problems and bird kills caused by the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1989, I went into the field with Rob Lee, who was one of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead law enforcement investigators on the problem of bird kills in western oil fields. We met near Big Spring, Texas, and spent a day inspecting tanks and waste pits. I watched Lee recover several dead birds that had been trapped by the pits. Over the course of the following few years, Lee helped bring hundreds of cases against the oil companies. That aggressive enforcement of the law, combined with plenty of media coverage, spurred the industry to clean up its act. Thousands of pits and tanks were either closed or netted, a move which certainly saved thousands of birds from being needlessly killed.

A few days ago I contacted Lee, who is now retired and living in Lubbock, to get his view on why wind companies aren’t being prosecuted despite the fact that they are in obvious violation of the MBTA and Eagle Protection Act. He responded by saying that solving the problem in the oilfields “was easy and cheap.” The oil companies only had to put netting over their tanks and waste facilities, or close them. When it comes to wind turbines, “The fix here is not easy or cheap,” he said.

Nor does Lee expect to see any prosecutions of the politically correct wind industry. “It’s economics,” he said. “The wind industry has a lot of economic muscle behind it.”

While that may be true, it’s also apparent that for America’s lead environmental groups – Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club – the issue of global warming trumps nearly everything else. Those groups are remaining largely silent on the bird kill issue because, in their view, the wind industry’s claims that it reduces carbon dioxide emissions are more important that the unlawful killing of birds.

But let’s be clear. The issue at hand goes beyond questions about bird kills and global warming. The sad reality is that what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. When it comes to protecting America’s wildlife, federal law enforcement officials have a double standard: one that’s enforced against the oil, gas, and electric utility sectors, and another that exempts the wind power sector from prosecution despite years of evidence involving hundreds, even thousands, of violations of two of America’s oldest wildlife-protection laws.

When it comes to protecting America’s wildlife, federal law-enforcement officials are turning a blind eye when it comes to “green” energy sources.

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