After flipping through the pages of the Sierra Club’s latest issue of Sierra magazine, I am left with a deep disappointment as the organization – of which I am a member – continues to sound more like an industry lobby group than a conservation organization. Much of the March/April issue is dedicated to exulting the wind industry, with less than a page of material that provides a weak description of the industry’s impact on wildlife and wildlands, describing the death of birds and bats by wind turbines as “trivial,” and placing a lot of optimistic emphasis on the industry’s ability to self-regulate. As another blogger put it, “Not From The Onion: Sierra Magazine’s All-Wind Issue.”
The Sierra Club’s communication team cannot seem to promote renewable energy while adhering to a conservation ethic, despite ample opportunities to do so, suggesting the wind industry carries substantial influence over the organization and that the battle to eliminate harmful fossil fuel production has resulted in the sacrifice of our group’s dedication to the wild places the organization was founded to protect.
Wind turbines kill at least 440,000 birds each year, a figure that is expected to increase significantly as the wind industry expands. This number was not mentioned in the Sierra magazine article, perhaps because the Sierra Club’s definition of “trivial” probably does not seem to accurately describe hundreds of thousands of dead animals. The number of bat deaths by wind turbines probably also numbers in the tens of thousands per year, according to the US Geological Survey. I’m sorry if these numbers are “trivial” to the Sierra Club editorial staff, but some of our activists have fought for a lifetime to protect far fewer living beings.
Industry: Friend or Foe?
The Sierra article portrays the wind industry as cooperative and willing to self-regulate in order to protect wildlife, including examples of the industry paying “mitigation” fees and promising to turn off turbines if select species of birds are spotted in the area. This is a naive portrayal of the situation on the ground, ignores substantial information to the contrary, and sounds more like industry talking points than the concerned voice of a conservation group.
“Cutting-edge” bird radar: The article mentions Terra-Gen’s plans to deploy an avian radar in the Tehachapi Mountains in the western Mojave Desert to shut off the turbines when an endangered California condor approaches. The radar technology is fairly experimental, and a radar installed to protect large birds near the Ocotillo Wind project apparently failed to detect or turn off when a large turkey vulture flew through the project. The Terra-Gen project is mostly dependent on monitoring of California condor radio collars to know when a condor is in the area. Unfortunately, only half of the condor population is collared. Furthermore, the article does not seem to address another issue – if we hope the condors will inhabit their former range in the Tehachapi Mountains, is Terra-Gen prepared to shut down their wind turbines indefinitely if a condor pair nests nearby?
Altamont is an “outlier”: The Sierra article seems to begrudgingly mention the deaths of dozens of golden eagles at the Altamont Pass wind project in northern California, but describes this problem as an “outlier”. The article does not mention the Sierra Madre-Chokecherry wind project that is expected to kill up to 64 golden eagles each year when it is built. Or what about the eight golden eagles killed by the Pine Tree wind project in the Tehachapi Mountains? Or the golden eagle killed by the North Sky River wind project just weeks after the project began operations? These projects are newer than Altamont, and use similar turbine designs that the Sierra magazine article claims will reduce eagle mortality.
Wind industry uses voluntary guidelines: The Sierra magazine article also mentions the Sierra Club’s belated support for mandatory siting guidelines (the Sierra Club only announced support for mandatory guidelines after participating in a Federal process that approved voluntary guidelines). What the article does not mention is that the wind industry actively lobbied against mandatory wildlife protections, and shows disregard for the voluntary guidelines that the article implies are followed by industry. The wind industry generally does not listen to advice from Fish and
Wildlife Service (FWS) officials, nor from environmental groups when they are selecting locations for wind projects.
- According to the American Bird Conservancy petition to the Department of Interiorn last year demanding mandatory guidelines, one wind energy company began construction of their facility despite FWS concerns that the project would pose a serious threat to Bald Eagles.
- Representatives from British Petroleum are proceeding with plans to build a wind facility in Nebraska that would pose a major risk to the endangered whooping crane, despite repeated objections from the FWS.
- Another wind developer has ignored requests by FWS for information that could help determine risks to golden eagles in western Nevada.
The Sierra Club should know that voluntary guidelines are a failure – they tried to ask NextEra not to build in condor habitat and the company balked. If the voluntary guidelines are working, why are new projects being considered or built in prime raptor territory? In addition to the Sierra Madre-Chokecherry project mentioned above, the Granite Wind project would be built near golden eagles nests in the Mojave Desert.
Suggestive of the disregard industry has for wildlife, the owners of the Pine Tree wind project even asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for “proof” that the eight golden eagles killed at the site were killed by turbines and not some other mysterious cause. The company knows that killing eagles could be a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Legalize Eagle Kills?
And now the Department of Interior is considering whether to issue the wind industry permits to kill eagles for 30 years, instead of the standard 5-year permits. Most wind projects do not have any eagle permits at all, but FWS has not been able to take action against wind projects that kill eagles because of the lack of political will in Washington to hold the wind industry accountable. The 30-year permits would be yet another concession to the industry that reduces public participation in the process and favors industry over the protection of wildlife, for reasons laid out in KCET’s ReWire. What is the Sierra Club’s position on eagle kill permits? Why was this not mentioned in Sierra magazine?
If the Sierra Club is going to maintain its credibility as a conservation organization, it should strongly consider a more vocal position on wind energy siting and wildlife protection. Part of this shift will require a more nuanced and educational approach in its communications with membership, instead of the material found in the most recent issue. After years of telling our members that the wind industry is the green David versus Goliath, we will need to break the news that the wind industry shares at least two common interests with Goliath–profit and destruction of land–and that we need to be more vigilant. That should not be hard for our membership to understand. The wind industry is growing quickly and replacing fossil fuels – if we want future generations to appreciate wind energy, we should fight today to make sure the industry follows the most sustainable path. For the time being, we are behaving as a mouthpiece for the industry, and not for wildlife.
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