The wording of the Eagle Protection Act could not be any clearer. It “prohibits anyone, without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior,” from “taking” bald or golden eagles. The law defines “take” as “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.”
Despite that language, the Obama administration continues to cast a blind eye to the largest eagle-killing industry in America: the wind-energy sector. Not only is the Department of Justice refusing to prosecute the wind industry despite clear and repeated violations of two of America’s oldest wildlife laws – the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act – but the administration is also helping the wind industry cover up the number of birds it is killing.
We know this thanks to some excellent reporting this week by Dina Cappiello of the Associated Press. The wind industry, says Cappiello, reports bird kills only on a voluntary basis, and “the Obama administration in many cases refuses to make the information public, saying it belongs to the energy companies or that revealing it would expose trade secrets or implicate ongoing enforcement investigations.”
Cappiello’s work also shows that the extent of eagle kills by wind turbines is more widespread that was previously known. She found that wind projects in Wyoming have killed four dozen golden eagles since 2009. One site, Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind project, has killed ten golden eagles in its first two years of operation.
The AP report on eagle deaths was published just one day after the Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that it will not prosecute the operator of a proposed wind project, to be located in Kern County, Calif., if that project kills a California condor. The California condor is among the world’s most endangered animals, with a total population of fewer than 250 birds in the wild. The proposed wind project will be built on public land.
The more studies that are done on wind turbines and bird kills, the more definitive proof we have that the machines are killing lots of birds. In March, a peer-reviewed study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimated that 573,000 birds per year are killed in the U.S. by wind turbines, including some 83,000 birds of prey. The latest study’s numbers are significantly higher than an official estimate published in 2008 by the Fish and Wildlife Service that put bird kills by wind turbines at 440,000 per year.
The large number of eagle kills in Wyoming matters because that state could soon be home to one of the world’s largest wind projects. A subsidiary of Anschutz Corporation, the privately held company owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, is planning to build a $5 billion, 1,000-turbine facility known as the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised the project, much of which may be built on federal land. Salazar did so even though the Bureau of Land Management has estimated that the massive wind project will kill 46 to 64 golden eagles every year.
On its website, the Fish and Wildlife Service says that any violation of the Eagle Protection Act can result in a fine of $100,000, or $200,000 for organizations. It further states that penalties increase for “additional offenses, and a second violation of this Act is a felony.” Those facts are important because nine golden eagles have been killed since 2009 by wind turbines at the Pine Tree Wind Project in Kern County, California, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service agent in charge of the facility. Felony charges ought to be leveled against the owners of the Pine Tree project, but that might prove a tad embarrassing. Pine Tree is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which eagerly promotes the claim that the wind project’s carbon dioxide savings are “roughly the same as removing 35,000 cars from the road.”
While the wind industry enjoys an exemption from prosecution for killing eagles and other birds, the Interior Department has aggressively brought cases against the oil-and-gas industry. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service filed criminal indictments against three drillers who were operating in North Dakota’s Bakken field. One of those companies, Continental Resources, was indicted for killing a single bird (a Say’s Phoebe) that is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That law has been in place since 1918.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s director, Dan Ashe, told Cappiello that his agency is more concerned about climate change than bird kills. “Climate change is really [the] greatest threat that we see to species conservation in [the] long run,” Ashe said. “We have an obligation to support well-designed renewable energy.”
Ashe’s statement beggars belief. If a renewable-energy project is truly “well-designed,” it deosn’t kill wildlife. Cappiello reports more stunning news in her story on the Duke Energy wind project in Wyoming that has already killed ten golden eagles: Duke has “repeatedly sought a permit from the federal government to kill eagles legally,” she writes, “but was told it was killing too many to qualify.” So if ten eagle kills is too many, would Fish and Wildlife issue a permit to kill five?
The Fish and Wildlife Service claims that it is investigating the eagle deaths caused by the wind turbines. But investigations matter only if there is a prosecutor willing to take the case forward. It’s clear that the Department of Justice will not do so. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Jill Birchell, special agent in charge of law enforcement for the Fish and Wildlife Service in California and Nevada. Birchell told me that she was “not aware of any grand jury ever impaneled on these cases.”
Let’s review. The Obama administration is perpetuating a pernicious legal double standard with regard to federal wildlife laws. It prosecutes industries that produce “dirty” energy and exempts those that claim to produce “clean” energy. Furthermore, it’s giving the wind industry a get-out-of-jail-free card so that if it kills some of our most-endangered species, such as the California condor, it will not face prosecution. The wind industry is further expanding its operations onto public land in both California and Wyoming. And the American Wind Energy Association has recently said that its main goal is to obtain a multi-year extension of the production tax credit, the lucrative subsidy that was extended for one year back in January. In other words, despite some two decades of subsidies, the wind lobby claims it still needs public money to be viable.
Thus, the wind industry wants to use more public land – and of course, more public money – so that it can continue killing the public’s wildlife with impunity. But since the wind industry can claim that it is doing something – no matter how insignificant – with regard to carbon dioxide emissions, the Obama administration is willing to go along, and even help the industry hide the extent of its bird kills.
If there is a more obvious example of crony capitalism to be had in our country than the treatment the wind industry now enjoys, I can’t think of it.
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