Sierra Club Endorses Wyoming Wind Farm That Will Slaughter Golden Eagles

The Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign and the group's Deputy Conservation Director applauded Department of Interior's plans to authorize a 355 square mile industrial wind facility in Wyoming that is expected to kill as many as 5,400 birds and 6,300 bats each year.  The Club's "Blowing in the Right Direction" article in Grist claims the energy could be shipped nearly 700 miles to Nevada in order to replace the dirty Reid Gardner coal plant, even though the Sierra Club released a study in June saying that Reid Gardner could be shut down by implementing local energy efficiency measures that actually save ratepayers money. 

From the environmental impact statement.  Alternative 1R is the proposal that Interior plans to approve, despite the heavy toll on wildlife.
Extensive Impacts
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Project -- a single project divided into two units that each span over 100,000 acres of mostly ecologically intact Wyoming wildlands -- would be built by an affiliate of the multi-billion dollar Anschutz Corporation.  The company operates oil fields, mines, and sports stadiums.  Unlike past Sierra Club communications on wind energy, the Sierra Club article gives a nod to environmental impacts, saying "we look forward to reviewing the final environmental impact statement for these two large wind projects in Wyoming, and working with BLM to ensure that there are adequate conservation measures for two struggling bird species, the Golden Eagle and the Greater Sage Grouse."

I wish the Sierra Club reviewed the environmental impact statement before endorsing the project.  According to Interior's estimates, the 1,000 giant wind turbines are expected to kill up to 64 golden eagles and 150-210 other raptor species each year.  Beyond raptors, the wind turbines are expected to kill up to 5,400 birds of various other species and 6,300 bats each year, according to the final environmental impact statement.  The bat mortality probably would mostly affect hoary and silver-haired bats.  Because bats have a slow reproductive rate, the loss of so many bats would be considered significant, according to the environmental impact statement.

Over 480 miles of wide new roads will be carved into the countryside to provide access to the turbines and facilitate the movement of construction equipment.
A map of the proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project in Wyoming. The project would industrialize an area 10 times the size of Manhattan, and nearly 1.5 times the size of San Francisco.
No Transparency
The true impacts of wind energy could be even greater, but most wind companies do not cooperate with conservation groups or biologists to obtain accurate numbers of bird and bat mortality.  The Anschutz Corporation reportedly will consider measures to reduce bird and bat mortality at the Wyoming wind project, but it is unlikely that these measures will be mandatory and at the end of the day the company will put its contractual obligations with utility companies above wildlife concerns.  The American Bird Conservancy highlighted several examples of wind energy companies ignoring wildlife concerns in its original petition to make wildlife guidelines mandatory for wind energy companies.

The Department of Interior has also failed to share information that would help determine the extent of wind energy's impact on birds and bats. The American Bird Conservancy filed a legal challenge in June against the Department of Interior because the agency has suppressed information about wildlife impacts and its own correspondence with the wind industry, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Super Size Me
Photo by Dept. of Interior.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project will also involve 126 miles of new collector power lines in the project area, but that is just the start of the transmission line disaster.  The company is likely to sell its power to utility companies far from Wyoming in America's southwest.  In order to do so, the project would connect to the TransWest Express Transmission project.  The massive transmission project will construct hundreds of steel lattice towers across 700 miles of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and probably lose about 7% of the energy it is carrying to typical "line loss".  The line would be the second largest direct current line in the country and the company estimates the line will costs about $3 billion, although a much shorter transmission line in California cost ratepayers $2.1 billion.

Both the wind project and new transmission lines will require tons of steel, concrete, and copper -- materials that require more destructive mining and processing that pollute our communities and destroy our lands. Cement plants in the western Mojave Desert have emitted as much as 1,200 pounds of mercury and 4.6 million metric tons of CO2 on an annual basis.

...With a Side of Fossil Fuels
It is likely that any utility company purchasing wind energy from the project will also construct a new natural gas peaker plant to compensate for the intermittent nature of wind energy.   The natural gas peaker plants are wasteful because they are usually kept in stand-by mode and need to heat up quickly if there is a significant change in the wind energy contribution to the grid.  In San Diego, hundreds of people turned out to oppose the proposed Quail Brush natural gas plant that the utility company claims is necessary to support its purchase of wind energy, including from the destructive Ocotillo Express wind energy project.

Public Lands - Our Energy Addiction's Credit Card
Public lands have become a convenient credit card for environmental organizations eager to defeat fossil fuels by supporting renewable energy projects instead, and the White House has played off of this blind support by approving both renewable energy projects and fossil fuel projects.  The Obama administration this year alone has approved exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic, the southern leg of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, thousands of acres of new natural gas fields, and the mining of millions of tons of coal.

Instead of pushing local clean energy or energy efficiency, the response from some corners is to demand more destruction. The pro-industry Center for American Progress -- which collaborates with many environmental groups -- published a report in June demanding the administration ramp up utility-scale renewable facilities on public lands (which the White House is already trying to do, by the way).  According to the report:  "In order to use publicly owned places as a test case for a balanced energy policy, we recommend that the president establish a clean resources standard of 35 percent by 2035 for public lands."  The report does not acknowledge how much land would be destroyed to meet this objective, but a Department of Energy study found that meeting just 20% of our energy needs with wind turbines would industrialize 20,000 square miles of public lands, and an additional 4,000 square miles of our waters for offshore wind.

Why should the White House care about protecting nature if nature's guardians are also willing to sacrifice wildlands?  Why should Interior care about polar bears in the Arctic or dolphins in the Gulf, if the Sierra Club is sacrificing golden eagles in Wyoming?  We're locked in a battle of compromises where public lands lose, and corporations win.

Slowly but Surely
The Sierra Club's endorsement of the 355 square mile wind project and implicit approval of the TransWest Express transmission line may make it one of the most well-funded and organized proponents of industrializing public lands second to the fossil fuels industry.   The group has asked for an extension of the wind energy production tax credit (PTC) as part of its pro-industry "Wind Works" campaign, potentially unleashing hundreds of square miles of additional wind projects on public lands, and has publicly or tacitly supported several large solar projects in California and Nevada that have destroyed ecologically intact desert and grassland.  The Sierra Club knows that the costs are high, but its measures to contain the damage of these projects have resulted in only two lawsuits -- one against the North Sky River wind project that is likely to kill California Condors, and another against the Calico Solar power project, which would destroy several square miles of pristine desert tortoise habitat. With just tepid willingness among most conservation groups to speak up,  most "green" energy companies are deaf to conservationist concerns and eager to make a profit off of the destruction of wildlands.

Photo from San Ramon Valley School District
Generating clean energy locally and implementing more energy efficiency measures should be our starting point before we destroy the lands we cherish.  Some in the Sierra Club seem to recognize this -- the group started the "My Generation" rooftop solar campaign in California, and its own study suggested that the Reid Gardner coal plant could be replaced by cutting energy waste in Nevada.  The Sierra Club of California is pushing for a robust feed-in-tariff that would spur local clean energy installations, sparing our wildlands from climate change and industrialization.  But the Sierra Club's "Blowing in the Right Direction" article suggests it remains addicted to the industrial solution, and has not seriously considered the costs.  Climate change is already strangling our planet as this past week's record-setting temperatures attest to, but destroying public lands should not be our first step.

A list of wildlife considered present on the wildlands to be destroyed and industrialized for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project:


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