Tuesday, January 3, 2012

American Bird Conservancy Seeks Enforced Permit System for Wind Energy

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) formally petitioned the Department of Interior to establish and enforce a permit mechanism that would regulate the wind energy industry's impacts on birds.  The petition provides insight into a cavalier energy industry that has shown little regard for wildlife conservation, and Federal agencies ignoring their responsibilities under two major laws -- the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts. 

Without regulation, the wind energy industry will push already-imperiled birds and bats into further decline, including the Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Whooping Crane, Cerulean Warbler, Hawaiian Goose, and California Condor.  Our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions should not involve such widespread destruction of natural resources.
  • Currently, it is only voluntary for wind companies to apply for a "take" permit when wind turbines are expected to kill protected birds, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to enforce two key conservation laws.   The result is a wind energy industry that repeatedly ignores advice on how to minimize impacts on wildlife.
  • The United States will likely have installed 100,000 wind turbines by 2020, which are expected to kill one million birds each year.  In 2009, 22,000 turbines killed approximately 440,000 birds, according to research on bird mortality at wind facilities.
  • The US goal of generating 20% of our electricity demand with wind facilities is expected to impact nearly 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat and 4,000 square miles of marine habitat.  That is an area the size of West Virginia, or nearly three times the size of New Jersey.
Wind Industry Not Cooperative
The Department of Interior's current guidelines for the wind energy industry are only voluntary, and ABC has documented several cases in which wind energy companies patently ignore concerns by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that a wind project will illegally kill raptors and migratory birds.   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 FWS has also become frustrated by confidentiality agreements imposed on biological consultants hired by the industry, and a federal district court in 2009 tossed out surveys provided by an industry-hired environmental consultant because the information was found to be intentionally skewed to protect company interests.  The wind industry's silence and skewed information compounds the problem of overall under-reporting of bird mortality at wind energy facilities.

This map put together by the American Bird Conservancy shows proposed wind turbines and testing towers in black, critically important bird areas in red, and orange shading represents key bird migration corridors.
Department of Interior Leadership Looking the Other Way
The wind energy industry may be one of the only sectors of its size allowed to ignore environmental law,  despite clear legal authority granted to the FWS to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Action (BGEP).   In one e-mail discovered by ABC, a Fish and Wildlife Service official captured Washington's willingness to ignore its responsibilities, telling officials at the Maine Department of Conservation that "bird and bat issues are flying under the radar screen (pun intended) for USFWS."

The FWS -- almost certainly at the direction of Department of Interior leadership -- has simply failed to institute a mandatory permitting mechanism that would require the wind energy industry to evaluate and limit its impacts on birds. The voluntary guidelines "are designed to allow project developers to obtain assurances for non-prosecution in exchange for merely documenting FWS recommendations and developers’ reasons for “disagreeing” with the Service to show “adherence” to the Guidelines,"  according to the ABC petition.
"Thus, despite being well-aware that wind energy projects will invariably take migratory birds protected under the MBTA, FWS has embarked on an approach that merely provides voluntary guidelines in lieu of mandatory obligations for wind energy developers, and that affords developers little incentive to abide by the determinations of FWS biologists as to which sites pose unacceptable risks to migratory birds."
Despite letting the wind energy off the hook and turning a blind eye to the thousands of illegal birds deaths, FWS has fined other industries for environmental impacts under the MBTA.  According to the ABC petition, the FWS electric utility PacifiCorp for impacts on Golden Eagles, hawks, and ravens in violation of the MBTA.  In 2009, the FWS fined ExxonMobil for the deaths of migratory birds at one of its petroleum facilities.

Alarming Impacts
Wind turbines in wildland areas are responsible for killing majestic raptors at an alarming rate. Wind turbines in California's Altamont Pass are estimated to have killed 54-94 Golden Eagles since 1998, while the Pine Tree wind energy project has killed at least six Golden Eagles in the first three years of operation.  At one geographic region in Wyoming the mortality rate is one Golden Eagle death per 13 wind turbines per year; at another it is one Golden Eagle death per 39 wind turbines per year, according to an FWS study.  At least 484 migrating birds were killed in once incident after becoming disoriented by unnecessary lighting at the Mount Laurel wind facility in West Virginia, while 52 birds were found dead around meteorological test towers at a wind facility in California.

The vast array of giant structures not only pose a direct threat through potential collision, they may also create barriers to birds that have followed the same migration route for centuries and deprive others of essential habitat.  BP is proposing a wind facility in South Dakota that would construct 2,000 turbines in the middle of the whooping crane's Aransas-Wood Buffalo migration corridor.  In Idaho, Greater Sage-Grouse abandoned habitat after a wind energy company installed testing towers, since the birds avoid areas with tall structures.

Many Americans probably do not understand just how large wind turbines have become.  Many facilities now feature turbines over 400 feet high -- much taller than the Statue of Liberty. The blades of these massive turbines spin up to 180 mph, and sweep an area greater than a football field.  By 2015, the Department of Energy expects the average turbine height to reach 700 feet.

Graphic from: Virginia Wind, Turbine Size, http://www.vawind.org/#javascript
Destructive Wind Energy in the Mojave Desert:
There are hundreds of square miles of wind energy facility proposals targeting the Mojave Desert region, including Granite Wind near Apple Valley, the Alta Wind Energy Center near Tehachapi, Searchlight Wind project,  Black Lava Butte, and several others

Take Action:  
You can sign the American Bird Conservancy's petition in support of their efforts at this website.

You can download and read the American Bird Conservancy's petition to the Department of Interior by following this link.

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