It’s an odd situation when the Sierra Club provides unconditional support to an industry that describes wildlife and conservation goals as “obstacles,” lobbies to weaken the environmental laws we have fought hard to institute and enforce, and enjoys comfortable access to a White House promoting an “all of the above” energy policy that is taking its toll on our climate and our public lands. In a blog post titled “Americans Agree With President Obama: Wind Is the Way,” Sierra Club Director of Clean Energy Dave Hamilton calls for the renewal of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) that has driven the wind industry’s expansion onto wildlands in recent years, yet the wind industry simultaneously ignores the Club’s conservation concerns and dismisses guidance from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to avoid impacts on protected and endangered bats and birds.
The wind industry is not as toxic as coal, but it has about as much regard for conservation as its fossil fuel counterparts, according to documents from last year’s American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) board meeting. In a policy environment where conservation and wildlife have taken a back seat to the mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs,” it is even more imperative that the Sierra Club not simply mimic AWEA’s lobbyists, but instead add the value that is direly needed in Washington– a conservation organization that can maintain a green ethic. That does not mean we need to be industry’s foe, but we must act as a concerned party that wants clean energy to protect – not sacrifice – biodiversity and treasured landscapes. We cannot be that advocate for conservation when we hand our “green halo” over to an industry that shows little respect for the land.
Two Sierra Club Positions: Lead or Follow?
The AWEA board documents essentially outline their plans to exploit environmental groups to achieve industry goals, and they identify the Sierra Club as one of their acquiescent “eNGOs”. Mr. Hamilton’s most recent blog post, like his previous pro-industry writings, do not mention the Club’s own–apparently segregated–concerns that the wind energy industry should do more to protect wildlife. Sierra Club last year supported weak and voluntary guidelines on behalf of AWEA to make sure that concerns for wildlife did not slow down the permitting of wind projects on public lands, going so far as to sign a joint letter with AWEA. In a positive development earlier this year, the Club expressed its support for mandatory guidelines, but it was too late in the process to shape Interior’s decision to institute the voluntary guidelines.
Mr. Hamilton told Minnesota Public Radio the Sierra Club would rather see mandatory guidelines that would hold the industry responsible for protecting wildlife, but now that voluntary guidelines are in place, the organization will “watch it very closely to make sure that it accomplishes what it sets out to do.” Apparently there are not many accomplishments to speak of, so far. The Sierra Club along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity had to launch a legal challenge against the North Sky Wind energy project, which is anticipated to threaten the endangered California Condor. NextEra Energy, the project’s owner, is planning to build the project regardless of environmentalist’s concerns, showing just how much the Sierra Club gets in return for its support of the wind industry.
The Sierra Club has been relatively quiet on other major wind projects in the desert. As I write this, Pattern Energy is bulldozing intact desert habitat in Southern California to install over 100 giant wind turbines, and Duke Energy is planning to carve wide access roads into ecologically intact desert near Searchlight, Nevada. All told, as of May, the wind industry had proposed over 249 square miles of projects across Arizona, California and Nevada. In those same states, the industry was exploring additional projects on over 1,121 square miles, according to the BLM’s land records database. These numbers do not count the thousands of other square miles facing wind’s blades in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, and all along the mountains of the East Coast. Mr. Hamilton’s proud boast that the wind industry was on track to supply 20% of our energy demand by 2030 neglected to mention one important statistic – doing so will industrialize 20,000 square miles of land, according to a DOE study (PDF).
Wind Industry Quietly Lobbying Against Science
The wind industry has quietly engineered Department of Interior policy to clear the way for an industrialization of our lands probably exceeding the Bureau of Reclamation’s hydropower dam construction blitz of the last century. Wind turbines are estimated to kill nearly half a million birds each year, according to the USFWS; a number that is eventually expected to top one million birds a year. Efforts by wildlife officials to ensure that this industrialization does not result in regretful impacts on our ecosystems have come under attack by the industry. Testifying on behalf of AWEA on 1 June 2011, RES Americas CEO Susan Reilly and Horizon Energy executive Rory Roberts complained to Congress that the industry faced “urgent challenges as a result of two documents released in February of 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” according to the transcripts from the Congressional testimony. They were referring to the Draft Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines before they were weakened as a result of AWEA’s lobbying, and the Draft Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance, which would make it difficult for wind companies to receive permission from USFWS to kill protected Bald and Golden Eagles.
Ms. Reilly told Congress “there does not appear to be any scientific justification for these onerous
requirements, nor can it be demonstrated that the requirements will help eagles. How could they when we are only causing 1 percent of the problem?” She claimed that “modern” turbines are so large that they cause fewer eagle casualties. Yet the Pine Tree wind project on the edge of the Mojave Desert near Tehachapi has killed at least eight Golden Eagles, despite using the “modern” wind turbines.
In his testimony, Mr. Roberts suggested that instead of giving the USFWS any decision-making authority on proper siting of wind projects, the process should be “developer-led.” In other words, industry should make decisions on wildlife impacts, not the USFWS. The wind executive even concluded that “questionable science” has raised concerns about “noise impacts on wildlife” and “airspace as habitat”. Mr. Roberts should see how effective a hunter a Golden Eagle is when it has to walk up to its prey, instead of flying in the airspace over foraging habitat.
Later in that same month, an executive from Element Power testified on behalf of AWEA before the US House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee in support of a series of bills (HR2170, HR2171, HR2172 and HR2173) put forth that would weaken the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which were staunchly opposed by most environmental groups. The bills specifically aimed to strip away requirements for environmental review of renewable energy projects, threatening to set a precedent that could open the door for similar exceptions for other industries. The Element Power executive was careful not to provide a blanket endorsement of the legislation, but nonetheless conveyed AWEA’s appreciation of Republican “streamlining” of the NEPA process, specifically asking to limit cumulative impact analysis, and requirements for alternatives.
Trips to the White House
As the Department of Interior’s draft wind energy guidelines entered into a critical stage of bureaucratic and public review in early 2011, wind executives were busy meeting with White House advisors who arguably would be able to influence the outcome. According to the Washington Post’s White House visitors database, NextEra CEO James Robo and two other executives from the company in January 2011 visited Cass Sunstein, Obama’s head of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Remember, NextEra is the company planning to build wind turbines in the path of the endangered California Condor. On 15 February 2011, CEO of Invenergy Michael Polsky visited Senior Advisor to Obama Valerie Jarrett. Invenergy is currently proposing a wind project in North Carolina that could kill up to 20 Bald Eagle deaths each year, according to USFWS. Mr. Polsky also gave hundreds of dollars in 2005 to the Senate campaign of Ken Salazar, who is now conveniently serving as Secretary of Interior.
A day after Mr. Polsky’s visit, the head of AWEA, Denise Bode and other wind industry officials met with Obama’s Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, Heather Zichal. Although the White House has not revealed the purposes of these meetings, they took place when the wind industry was focused on “urgent” obstacles posed by USFWS recommendations to protect wildlife. Ms. Bode would later meet with Senior Advisor Peter Rouse at least two more times in 2011. Mr. Rouse, according to the New York Times, was also instrumental in helping Shell get approval for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic, suggesting he is at least familiar with how to pull strings in the Department of Interior.
The Department of Interior is now taking another step to support wind industry objectives and endanger wildlife as they consider extending “take” permits that would allow wind projects to kill Bald and Golden Eagles for 30 years, instead of five. So not only are guidelines voluntary and “developer-led,” they will allow the industry to kill off keystone species for 30 years, incurring unprecedented impacts on vast swaths of habitat in the US.
What is Our Purpose?
It’s time that the Sierra Club stop acting as yet another industry lobbyist, and help define a clean energy future that respects wildlands and science. Respect for the land and our natural treasures should be an integral part of our means and ends, and that cannot be outsourced to any particular industry. If we silence these ideals to favor an industry now, there is no reason for leaders and communities to take us seriously as an advocate for nature in the future.
Sierra Club mission: To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;
To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources;
To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.
American Wind Energy Association mission: The mission of the American Wind Energy Association is to promote wind power growth through advocacy, communication, and education.