Two developers are pushing to build large wind farms on the Texas Gulf Coast, the last great habitat area of the United States.
The Lower Laguna Madre region of the coast is not only one of America’s most active migratory bird routes, it also includes coastal prairies, oak mottes, sand dunes, freshwater wetlands, wind tidal flats and coastal marshes, all providing habitat for wildlife.
The Laguna Madre is one of only three hypersaline bays in the world; its waters and sea grass meadows hold extremely productive wetlands for shrimp, fish, shellfish and waterfowl.
Texas has an abundance of wind in many areas of the state and this year outpaced California as the nation’s top producer of wind power. More important, it has an abundance of locations where industrial wind power projects not only make economic sense, but environmental sense as well. However, the proposed site in the Laguna Madre isn’t one of them.
For all the benefits that wind power could bring, it’s important to understand the very real impact these industrial wind power projects would have on this sensitive area. Roads and turbine construction would fragment more than 60,000 acres of undeveloped habitat. Each windmill covers more than an acre of airspace as its 100-foot blades spin, and each turbine requires 1,000 tons of concrete to anchor it to the ground.
This project would include more than 21 miles of new electrical towers to support the high-voltage transmission line. More roads, more cranes, more impact. That kind of construction might make sense in West Texas – where wind is plentiful and the land is resilient – but it just doesn’t make sense in a sensitive ecosystem like the Laguna Madre.
The harm that would result from construction is only part of the problem with this site. Millions of migrating birds pass through the Laguna Madre and rely on the coastal habitats for shelter and food. Studies show that between 20,000 and 37,000 birds are killed by wind turbines per year due to collisions. Bad weather could force tens of thousands of migrating birds from higher altitudes down into the rotor-swept area.
This is a perfect example of a good idea in the wrong place. That’s why groups ranging from the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense to the members of the Coastal Habitat Alliance have raised concerns about this project. These groups understand the potential benefit that more wind power will bring to Texas, but they also believe that the environmental benefit must outweigh the environmental cost.
To that end, these groups have urged the Public Utility Commission of Texas to require a public input process and more study before approving the project. The PUC hasn’t agreed or refused yet, but the wind power companies have argued that the PUC doesn’t even get a say when it comes to the construction of the wind turbines themselves.
Wind companies across the country are watching this proposal carefully.
Will these construction projects receive the scrutiny and attention their massive footprints deserve? Or will they get a free pass and be allowed to threaten the very environment their marketing brochures say they are trying to protect?
Depending on PUC’s answers, the landscape of Texas’ sensitive regions could be forever changed.
Wind power will be part of Texas’ future. In the right locations, it can be a very positive and profitable part.
But everything has a place. And Laguna Madre is a place for vastness, clean water, birds and nature – not concrete, steel and rotor-swept areas creating a hemispheric threat to migratory birds. The public should have a say in the matter.
Jim Blackburn is the founder of the Coastal Habitat Alliance.
16 October 2007
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