Nature Conservancy loses bid to stop project
TULSA, SALT LAKE CITY, WASHINGTON D.C.––Calling concerns about wildlife voiced by The Nature Conservancy “speculative,” District Judge Robert Haney, of Ottawa County, Oklahoma, on November 12, 2014 ordered Osage County to grant a conditional use permit to TradeWind Energy Inc. for the construction of 68 wind turbines on a 9,000-acre tract near the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.
The Haney verdict is unlikely to end opposition to TradeWind’s Mustang Run Wind Project, which The Nature Conservancy argues may jeopardize lesser prairie chickens, among other bird species.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently listed lesser prairie chickens as a threatened species, bringing lawsuits against the listing from the attorney generals of North Dakota and Kansas, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.
Mountain of dead birds & bats
While the potential impact of any new development on wildlife will by definition be “speculative” until it is built, a mountain of dead birds, bats, and impact studies have documented reasons for concern about wind power for 33 years. The 4,000-turbine Altamont Pass wind farm in California, opened in 1981, has been found to kill 1,127 federally protected birds of prey per year, including 67 golden eagles. Similar findings have been reported from two early wind farms in Spain. The wind energy industry and the pro-wind power Barack Obama administration argue that improved turbine design and siting have markedly cut wildlife deaths at newer wind farms.
Some wind energy companies have reported recent dramatic reductions in harm to wildlife. Pattern Energy, for instance, in September 2014 claimed to have cut bat deaths by 75% at the Spring Valley Wind Farm near Ely, Nevada. Opened in August 2012, the Spring Valley Wind Farm operates 66 turbines, each 425 feet tall, producing electricity equivalent to the energy needs of 40,000 homes.
After 533 Mexican free-tailed bats were recorded killed by the Spring Valley turbines in 2013, three times as many as the federally authorized “allowable take,” Pattern Energy “implemented new ‘cut-in’ speeds for the turbines, increasing the wind speed required to spin them from 7 miles per hour to 11 miles per hour,” the Ely Times reported.
PacifiCorp sues to conceal birdstrike data
But at least one major player in the wind industry does not want the public to see the evidence pertaining to wind turbine effects on bats and birds, whatever that evidence may be. PacifiCorp of Portland, Oregon, a subsidiary of the energy conglomerate Berkshire-Hathaway, on October 17, 2014 asked the U.S. District Court in Utah to grant an injunction preventing the U.S. Department of the Interior from releasing information about birds found dead at the 13 wind farms it operates in at least three states.
PacifiCorp may perceive a substantial economic interest in keeping bird deaths quiet, having paid more than $10.5 million in federal penalties in 2009 for allegedly causing the electrocution 232 eagles along power lines serving its coal-fueled generating stations.
Associated Press sought birdstrike info
Reported Dina Cappiello of Associated Press, “The Obama administration has said it planned to turn over the material” at odds in the current lawsuit, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by AP in March 2013.
“AP asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for data collected under corporate permits about the companies’ efforts to collect the carcasses of protected bird species, including eagles and migratory birds, found dead at their facilities,” Capiello explained. Energy companies resisted cooperating, but “The government concluded,” wrote Cappiello, “that the industry’s concerns were ‘insufficiently convincing’ to keep the files secret. The information the AP sought was part of a larger investigation into bird and eagle deaths at wind farms and the administration’s reluctance to prosecute” related cases, while promoting greater use of wind power.”
Wind farms rarely fined
Capiello in May 2013 revealed that “The Obama administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing eagles and other protected bird species, shielding the industry from liability and helping keep the scope of the deaths secret. More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year,” Capiello wrote, “including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March 2013 in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin. Each death is federal crime,” potentially a violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Obama administration has used Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Capiello pointed out, “to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines. No wind energy company has been prosecuted, even those that repeatedly flout the law.” That changed in November 2013, when Duke Energy Renewables of Charlotte, North Carolina, agreed to pay penalities totaling $1 million for killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two wind farms in Wyoming. But prosecutions of wind power developers remain rare.
“Wind power,” Capiello reminded, “a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term.” Meanwhile, the Obama administration has also pushed an amendment to federal regulations that would allow wind energy developers to operate under 30-year “allowable take” permits for killing bald and/or golden eagles, instead of permits which now must be renewed every five years, presumably after review of the permit holders’ efforts to reduce bird kills.
The American Bird Conservancy in June 2014 filed suit against the proposed new rule in federal court in San Jose, California.
Fossil fuel generating kills more birds
There are significant disagreements among researchers and major conservation charities about the significance of wind turbine mortality on bird populations. The British-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International argue that well-situated wind farms actually harm birds and bats far less than other electricity sources.
“Several studies have compared the effect of different energy sources on bird mortality overall,” summarized Robin Webster and Freya Roberts for CarbonBrief.org in April 2013.
“One, published earlier this year,” citing markedly more conservative estimates than those published by the Wildlife Society Bulletin, “calculates wind farms killed 20,000 birds died in 2009 in the U.S., while nuclear plants killed about 330,000 and fossil fueled power plants more than 14 million. The research concludes that taken together, fossil-fueled facilities are about 17 times more dangerous per gigawatt hour of electricity produced to birds than wind and nuclear power stations.”