For years, the wind energy industry has had a license to kill golden eagles and lots of other migratory birds. It’s not an official license, mind you.
But as the bird carcasses pile up—two more dead golden eagles were recently found at the Pine Tree wind project in Southern California’s Kern County, bringing the number of eagle carcasses at that site to eight—the wind industry’s unofficial license to kill wildlife is finally getting some serious scrutiny.
Some 77 organizations—led by the American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Endangered Species Coalition and numerous chapters of the Audubon Society—are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to toughen the rules for the siting, permitting and operation of large-scale wind projects.
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 up to $250,000 and imprisonment for two years.
The renewed focus on bird kills is coming at a bad time for the wind industry, which is being hammered by low natural-gas prices and a Congress unwilling to extend the 2.2 cents per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit that has fueled the industry’s growth in recent years.
Last June, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 70 golden eagles are being killed per year by the wind turbines at Altamont Pass, about 20 miles east of Oakland, Calif. 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 Treaty 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 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.
Mr. 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. When it comes to wind energy, he says, “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, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife recently filed a lawsuit against officials in Kern County, Calif., 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 state to get 33% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
Bats are getting whacked, too. The Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates that wind turbines killed more than 10,000 bats in the state in 2010.
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.”
Given that billions of dollars are at stake, the wind industry’s objections don’t surprise Mr. Glitzenstein. And while the lawyer wants more thorough environmental review of proposed wind projects, what he’s really hoping for is a good federal prosecution. So far, he says, 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.”
Mr. Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” (Public Affairs, 2010).
A version of this article appeared March 8, 2012, on page A15 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Windmills vs. Birds.
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