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It's down to the wire for bird lovers to make a bid to halt wind farms

A coalition of bird and conservation organizations will make a last-ditch effort Monday to stall or kill two large wind farms on the Texas Coast.

The increasingly acrimonious dispute pits two favorites of the environmental movement against each other – the supporters of wind energy and bird lovers.

The latter are running headlong into a reality of Texas energy politics: The state has more wind power and more bird species than any other, but no requirement that the peaceful coexistence of the two is considered before building new projects.

“There has been exactly zero reports that have been released to the public in Texas about environmental concerns in Texas from wind projects,” said Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy. “The coastal plain of Texas is one of the most important migratory corridors for birds and we would like to see some kind of evaluation before projects are going on down there.”

The Coastal Habitat Alliance, a combination of the King Ranch and local and national environmental organizations, will ask the Public Utility Commission of Texas to step into the situation Monday. The group wants the PUC to overturn an administrative law judge’s ruling and allow a hearing over a transmission line that would serve the two farms.

Because state regulations don’t require site permits for power plants, there will be no hearing on the wind farms themselves. That could change if the development impacts nearby wetlands under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but both developers are seeking to avoid the wetlands.

Wind energy long has been a favorite of environmentalists because it creates none of the air pollution or greenhouse gases associated with coal or other dirtier energy sources.

And Texas leads the nation in wind-power production. But with power companies now turning their attention from the windswept plains of West Texas to the bird-rich coast, the issue of harm to both habitat and fowl is heating up.

The debate has become nasty at times, with local Audubon societies and the famous King Ranch facing off against the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation and the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust, which own the land where the turbines would be built.

The developers of one of the farms, the Australian-based Babcock & Brown Ltd., claims it has conducted more environmental study on this site than almost any other in the world.

The company’s chief development officer, John Calaway, said those studies show the wind farm has little potential to harm birds. Calaway said the company is even pioneering a radar-based system for the project that can shut down the turbines within a minute in the event of a massive bird run-in.

But Calaway said it’s unlikely at this point that he would share the studies with any of the groups in opposition.

“I don’t think that, because of the way they’ve been referring to us, that we will be jumping up and down to accommodate then,” he said. “And quite frankly we don’t have to.”

Calaway’s company wants to build 157 turbines. The other company, PPM Energy, which is owned by the Spanish company Iberdrola, has proposed 84 turbines. The two wind farms combined would produce about enough energy to power the city of Corpus Christi, Calaway said.

“And that’s with zero emissions and using zero water,” he said.

Problems with birds and wind turbines have a history that goes far beyond Texas. Generally, most agree, the harm caused by such operations is minimal. But a few horrendous examples worldwide have caused concern.

Closest to home, a massive conglomeration of wind farms in California’s Altamont Pass kills more than 1,000 raptors a year. These include many iconic species such as golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.

Several states including California, New York and Washington now have requirements that such issues are studied beforehand when locating wind farms. Texas, which dropped all site permit requirements for power plants in the mid-1990s, does not.

All wind farms, though, are subject to federal prosecution if it is found they are killing endangered species or migratory birds, pointed out Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association.

“Technically, it is illegal to kill any single bird that migrates,” Jodziewicz said, although she admitted that she’d never heard of such a prosecution of a wind farm.

The two wind farms at issue would be the first on the Texas Coast. There are rumors of more companies eyeing the area and the Texas General Land Office announced this week that it will conduct the first-ever competitive lease sale to develop offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico on Oct. 2. The four tracts involved in the bidding total more than 73,000 acres and are near Jefferson, Calhoun, Brazoria and Cameron counties.

With the potential of more farms on the way, coastal bird advocates are looking at this fight to set a precedent, said Winnie Burkett of the Houston Audubon Society. There is an ongoing effort between the conservation organization and the industry to create a voluntary set of guidelines for sites of wind farms in Texas, but Burkett is worried the effort is not far enough along to help in this situation.

“This stuff is going to get on the ground for a long time,” she said. “We need to get the guidelines now.”

Anton Caputo
San Antonio Express-News


14 September 2007