Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sierra Club Joins Call for Mandatory Wind Energy Guidelines

The Sierra Club informed the Department of Interior in January that it supports mandatory guidelines for the wind energy industry that would protect wildlife,  strengthening its previously expressed position that only favored voluntary guidelines, according to the March issue of the Desert Report.  The move is a positive sign that the Sierra Club hopefully recognizes that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the destructive potential of any energy source -- whether that is coal, natural gas, wind or solar -- and that the conservation community should protect our natural resources instead of facilitating their destruction for the benefit of corporate profit.  The Sierra Club's letter  follows a petition submitted by the American Bird Conservancy in December asking Washington to establish a mandatory permitting system that will hold the wind energy industry accountable to environmental law.

According to the Sierra Club letter to Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar:
"...the wildlife values embodied in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other statutes should be protected by the full weight of the enacted laws and strong enforcement thereof."
Perhaps most appropriate considering the wind energy industry's efforts to undermine environmental guidelines as enumerated in the American Bird Conservancy's petition, the Sierra Club in its letter asserts that "the industry must display exemplary responsibility on a consistent basis," while the US Fish and Wildlife Service should show "aggressiveness" in its planning and "make real the threat of sanctions and prosecution."

The wind energy industry has some unscrupulous actors hiding behind a green facade, and they are demanding wide access to our public lands, threatening to fragment habitat and kill birds and bats that play crucial roles in maintaining balance in ecosystems throughout the southwest.  In early March, the California Wind Energy Association argued to State and Federal officials that it should be allowed to build on over 1,500 square miles of California's desert, with options to build on thousands more square miles.  Much of that land is home to rare plants, bighorn sheep, Golden Eagles, and the occasional California Condor. On a less quantifiable level, the construction of hundreds of wind turbines -- each towering 420 feet over the desert landscape -- would alter the character of our wildlands, depriving many of the natural escape they seek when they go to the desert.

In this screen capture of a map including in the California Wind Energy Association's presentation to the Renewable Energy Action Team, the industry is demanding access to the desert and mountain lands shaded in browns and blue, totaling thousands of square miles.
In the western Mojave Desert, NextEra Energy is planning to install over 100 wind turbines for its North Sky River project, despite citizen concerns that those turbines will kill Golden Eagles and California Condors. The wind project would be built just north of the Pine Tree Wind Energy project, which is under investigation by wildlife officials for killing at least eight Golden Eagles.  The Sierra Club and Center for Biodiversity have filed a legal challenge against Kern County for authorizing the North Sky River project.

This heap of Joshua Trees was left behind by construction crews destroying the desert to install wind turbines for the Alta Wind Energy Center, south of where NextEra Energy plans to build the North Sky River wind project.  Photo by Friend of Mojave.
In the eastern Mojave Desert, the Bureau of Land Management plans to let Duke Energy (which operates many coal-fired power plants) build 87 wind turbines on public lands near the small town of Searchlight, Nevada.  For this quiet stretch of desert, 87 structures taller than 420 feet will shatter the desert solitude.  Consider the fact that not even Las Vegas has as many man-made structures of similar height.  But beyond the loss of a wild characteristic, the ecosystem will suffer in other ways.  During surveys of the proposed project site, 122 desert tortoises were spotted.  The desert habitat around Searchlight is known to contain abundant populations of the tortoise's preferred food, including globe-mallow and desert marigold, according to a study conducted for the project's environmental impact statement.

As we find ourselves in a protracted battle to free ourselves of fossil fuels, we should not lose our conservation ethic.  The lands we cherish, and the plants and animals we have pledged to protect for future generations to enjoy should not be sacrificed to the renewable energy industry when better alternatives exist, including energy efficiency, distributed generation, or siting larger solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.  To welcome the most destructive forms of renewable energy -- industrial facilities on pristine wildlands -- is to abandon the core values that led us into the long battle we are fighting against coal and oil today.

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