Wind Industry Strategy Seeks to Undermine Wildlife Protections

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is carrying out an aggressive effort to undermine wildlife protections that it views as an obstacle to its expansion onto wildlands, according to an AWEA strategy document from late 2011.   AWEA's strategy outlines plans to facilitate the industrialization of public lands by allowing "industry to proactively set and guide the siting agenda" by co-opting environmental groups, government agencies, and a wildlife research institute, according to the document.
  • As of May, the wind industry had proposed over 249 square miles of projects across Arizona, California and Nevada.  In those same states, the industry was exploring additional projects on over 1,121 square miles, according to the BLM's land records database. Meeting just 20% of the United States' energy needs with wind energy will require 20,000 square miles, according to a Department of Energy report.
A heap of dead Joshua Trees cut down to make way for the Alta Wind Energy Center in the western Mojave Desert. Photo by Friends of Mojave
The AWEA document highlighted feedback to the wind industry from Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar, who told industry officials that their efforts were already successful in overriding science-based US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) guidelines for protecting protected bird species. According to a bullet point in the AWEA strategy document:
"Negotiated joint public comments with eNGOs [environmental groups] that covered many of industry’s key concerns. The joint comments were submitted by AWEA, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, among others. Heard directly from Secretary Salazar in the May CEO meeting that this letter was instrumental in changing course Service was taking..."
"Policy Threats"
Salazar almost certainly was referring to AWEA's success reversing bird protections proposed by USFWS and shortened deadlines for the environmental review process outlined in draft wind energy siting guidelines last year,  essentially transforming the guidelines into a "rubber stamp" approval process for wind facilities.  Interior decided to make the guidelines voluntary instead of mandatory, which is expected to embolden an industry that has mostly refused to listen to wildlife officials.
  • Already, the USFWS has been frustrated by wind developers who began construction of facilities despite serious concerns for the Bald Eagle--protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEP)--and whooping cranes--which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  In California, NextEra Energy has rushed forward with its North Sky River wind project in the western Mojave Desert despite environmentalists' concerns for the endangered California Condor.
  • AWEA's strategy uses the term "policy threats" to describe USFWS siting guidelines, the US Forest Service's efforts to steer responsible wind energy, and a list of birds and bats that apparently get in the way of AWEA's profit.
Bulldozers cut into eastern Oregon land to make way for a giant wind turbine. Photo from DOE.
Leveraging Elected Leaders
AWEA also sought the White House's help to open the doors to public lands.  According to the AWEA document, one unidentified wind industry executive met with White House senior advisor Pete Rouse, an Obama confidant who previously served as his chief of staff during his time in the Senate. AWEA also briefed the White House's Renewable Energy Rapid Response team on how to speed up wind energy permitting on public lands, according to the document.

AWEA busily networked on Capitol Hill last year, with over 122 meetings with the Senate and House, and several fundraisers for select members of Congress.  PACs working for NextEra Energy and Iberdola Renewables -- companies with massive wind projects proposed for desert wildlands -- co-hosted some of the fundraisers.  Much of AWEA's work on the Hill has been to extend the Production Tax Credit -- an economic incentive that gives the wind industry more profit whether or not they show any deference to wildlife concerns.  But AWEA apparently coordinated a bi-partisan Senate letter to the Department of Interior to weaken siting guidelines, according to the document.

Construction crews decimate Joshua Tree woodland habitat for the Alta Wind Energy Center in the Antelope Valley. Photo by Friends of Mojave
Distorting Science
Probably recognizing that its industry is responsible for fragmenting vast swaths of wildlife habitat, and that spinning blades sweeping an area the size of a football field for each turbine will inevitably kill wildlife, AWEA apparently began coordinating with the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) to commission "studies" that probably will favor the industry's cause.  AWWI is viewed by some in the conservation community to be in the pocket of the wind industry, and AWEA's strategy document highlights close coordination that seems to substantiate those concerns.

According to the strategy document, the wind industry plans to "[u]tilize AWWI as a convener/facilitator in establishing communications the leadership, and rank and file within Conservation, Scientific and Regulatory communities." The wind industry also planned to work "with AWWI’s Executive Director to develop a coordinated public outreach/media plan."

Moving Forward
As I have noted in recent blog posts, some in the environmental community view the wind energy industry as a savior that will battle climate change on our behalf and allow us to live without regrets. Unfortunately the wind energy industry is not capable of doing that without fragmenting and industrializing vast amounts of habitat, and killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats each year.  AWEA obviously recognizes that this weakness will require green allies to clear a path for it.  Apparently we have already helped it achieve victories against nature last year.  Listed as its first objective in its efforts to continue streamlining siting policies, AWEA plans to "[f]ocus on and strengthen relationships with eNGOs," referring to national environmental groups.  It is up to us whether we want to be an advocate for the wind industry, or an advocate for nature.  It is clear that the wind industry is not working for nature.  We can build a clean energy future focused on energy efficiency, distributed generation, and solar facilities on already-disturbed lands that can save our wildlands for future generations to enjoy.

A raptor perched on a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert.
A cluster of Mojave yuccas on the site of the proposed Searchlight Wind Energy project.  The facility is likely to be approved by the Department of Interior on nearly 30 square miles of public lands in southern Nevada.
Pattern Energy has already begun ripping up desert habitat south of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for the Ocotillo wind energy facility after the Department of Interior approved the project in May. Photo by Jim Pelley.


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