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Wind farms get pass on eagle deaths

Wednesday - 5/15/2013, 9:02pm  ET

In this April 18, 2013, photo, a golden eagle is seen flying over a wind turbine on Duke energy's top of the world windfarm in Converse County Wyo. The company has reported 10 golden eagle deaths since it started operation in 2009. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year. (AP Photo/Dina Cappiello)

DINA CAPPIELLO
Associated Press

CONVERSE COUNTY, Wyo. (AP) -- Wind farms in this corner of Wyoming have killed more than four dozen golden eagles since 2009, one of the deadliest places in the country of its kind.

But so far, the companies operating industrial-sized turbines here and elsewhere that are killing eagles and other protected birds have yet to be fined or prosecuted - even though every death is a criminal violation.

The Obama administration has charged oil companies for drowning birds in their waste pits, and power companies for electrocuting birds on power lines.

But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly.

"What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK," said Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent based in Cody.

It's a double standard that some Republicans in Congress said Tuesday they would examine after an Associated Press investigation revealed that the Obama administration has shielded the wind power industry from liability and helped keep the scope of the deaths secret.

"We obviously don't want to see indiscriminate killing of birds from any sort of energy production, yet the administration's ridiculous inconsistencies begs questioning and clarity-- clarity on why wind energy producers are let off the hook," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

The House Natural Resources Committee, which was at the beginning stages of an investigation, vowed to dig deeper Tuesday.

"There are serious concerns that the Obama administration is not implementing this law fairly and equally," said Jill Strait, a spokeswoman for the committee's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

Wind power, 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 has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term.

"Climate change is really greatest threat that we see to species conservation in long run," said Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe in an interview with the AP on Monday. "We have an obligation to support well-designed renewable energy."

But like the oil industry under President George W. Bush, lobbyists and executives have used their favored status to help steer U.S. energy policy.

The result is a green industry that's allowed to do not-so-green things.

More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country's wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Getting precise figures is impossible because many companies aren't required to disclose how many birds they kill. And when they do, experts say, the data can be unreliable.

When companies voluntarily report deaths, the Obama administration in many cases refuses to make the information public, saying it belongs to the energy companies or that revealing it would expose trade secrets or implicate ongoing enforcement investigations.

Nearly all the birds being killed are protected under federal environmental laws, which prosecutors have used to generate tens of millions of dollars in fines and settlements from businesses, including oil and gas companies, over the past five years.

"We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations," Colorado U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette said in 2009 when announcing Exxon Mobil had pleaded guilty and would pay $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states, including Wyoming.

The large death toll at wind farms shows how the renewable energy rush comes with its own environmental consequences, trade-offs the Obama administration is willing to make in the name of cleaner energy.

"It is the rationale that we have to get off of carbon, we have to get off of fossil fuels, that allows them to justify this," said Tom Dougherty, a long-time environmentalist who worked for nearly 20 years for the National Wildlife Federation in the West, until his retirement in 2008. "But at what cost? In this case, the cost is too high."

The Obama administration has refused to accept that cost when the fossil-fuel industry is to blame. The BP oil company was fined $100 million for killing and harming migratory birds during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants in Wyoming, paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines and at its substations.

But PacifiCorp also operates wind farms in the state, where at least 20 eagles have been found dead in recent years, according to corporate surveys submitted to the federal government and obtained by the AP. They've neither been fined nor prosecuted. A spokesman for PacifiCorp, which is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, said that's because its turbines may not be to blame.

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