Imagine the U.S. government had asked the oil industry to observe “voluntary” environmental guidelines to protect wildlife – and then imagine that the oil companies were so upset by how burdensome these “voluntary” guidelines were that they were allowed to substantially rewrite them. Of course, this is the kind of dystopian conspiracy that many people imagine already occurs when commercial interests collide with conservation and ecology. What’s remarkable though, is that this is precisely what the U.S. government is allowing to happen with the wind power industry, and not the oil companies – or any other fossil fuel utility.
Last week saw public comments close on the debate over the Department of the Interior and the “voluntary” regulation of Big Wind. Why does Big Wind need regulation? Because wind turbines are highly effective bird-killing machines: stick a 4,000-acre wind farm in the wrong spot and it’s an ecosystem-destroying splat fest.
If there is a capital of wind-turbine avicide, the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in central California might well be it. Between 1998 and 2001, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tried to quantify the impact of this vast wind farm, which extends over 50,000 acres, on bird life. It concluded that up to 4,300 birds were killed each year, including 27 to 34 golden eagles. A later, more extensive study of the farm, while noting the uncertainties in measuring bird kills, postulated even higher numbers.
The problem is not just collision – when you add in factors like habitat loss and fragmentation, barrier effects (such as a farm disrupting local or migratory flight paths) and noise, the annual tally of bird deaths caused by wind power is estimated at 440,000 a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But while fossil fuel utility companies are subjected to mandatory conservation rules and are aggressively prosecuted for killing protected species, Big Wind just has to look like it’s trying to be bird-friendly. As the Wildlife Service notes, following the voluntary guidelines will be “taken as evidence of due care,” and even if legally protected species are killed, “caring” means the companies may still be able to dodge the massive fines that have been imposed on careless oil and coal companies.
As Robert Bryce, energy journalist and author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” told me, “Violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – which, by the way, is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in America – have long been prosecuted without regard for whether the bird kills in question were intentional or not. Imagine if the U.S. Justice Department suddenly decided that enforcement and compliance with federal laws on cocaine trafficking were now to be considered ‘voluntary.’”
Many bird conservation groups are, not surprisingly, furious over this regulatory farce: It’s not just that they believe Big Wind should be subjected to mandatory regulation like every other utility, it’s that Big Wind should not get to write its own regulations.
As Kelly Fuller, an American Bird Conservancy expert on wind power, explained, the first set of “voluntary guidelines” was gutted to take out many of the specific proposal that would actually protect birds. “It is of real concern to the American Bird Conservancy that the earlier draft, written by experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service, has had most of its content replaced with material that came from an industry-dominated panel,” she said. “No other energy sector is allowed to write its own regulations – at least not without people getting upset when they find out about it.”
Despite this, some on the left have tried to portray the outrage as a Republican plot against renewable energy. Media Matters recently claimed that while there have been “a number of wildlife deaths … wind turbines provide more benefit to the environment than they do harm to wildlife.”
When I asked Fuller whether the American Bird Conservancy considered itself part of a Republican smear operation, she stressed that the organization was nonpartisan, and that other conservation and scientific groups that favor mandatory standards for wind power, such as the American Birding Association and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, were hardly political fronts.
Of course, the threat to wildlife from wind power does overlap with intense criticism of wind as a massively inefficient energy source (because it needs to be backed by conventional power and so forth), so it’s hardly surprising that Republicans are quick to accuse wind power advocates of “do as I say, not as I do,” hypocrisy; but that shouldn’t blind the public to a rather more basic economic truth: Wind power is not about mom-and-pop-shop environmentalists sticking up a couple of turbines on a mountaintop, it’s about massive companies like BP Alternative Energy building vast wind farms. When it comes to environmental impact, why should BP’s alternative energy division be held to lesser standards than BP’s petroleum division?
What’s good for the goose is good for everyone; namely, that the law should be applied equally.
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