Besides receiving federal subsidies and other financial incentives, the wind industry is getting special treatment from the Obama Administration: wind farms are allowed to kill protected bird species. The Associated Press has found that the Obama Administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing eagles and other protected birds, thus shielding the wind industry from liability. Further, the Obama Administration has kept the scope of the deaths secret. According to an estimate from the Wildlife Society Bulletin, U.S. wind farms kill more than 573,000 birds each year.[i] The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service officials have even told a private company that it will not be prosecuted for inadvertently harassing or even killing endangered California condors during the expected 30-year life of its wind farm.
The Obama Administration is shielding wind farms from liability for killing protected birds, while it is prosecuting other energy companies for killing birds. Oil and gas companies, for example, are fined millions of dollars each year for the deaths of protected birds that land and subsequently drown in their waste pits and power companies are prosecuted when birds are electrocuted by their power lines.
Environmental Consequences of Wind Power
The Obama Administration has poured about $1 billion annually in tax credits to wind farms in its first term to encourage their development (and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that this-year’s extension of the wind production tax credit will cost a whopping $12 billion). But, the administration has also turned away from prosecuting their preferred green energy sources for environmental damages that other companies must pay. The Associated Press has found documentation of 14 bird deaths at seven facilities in California, five each in New Mexico and Oregon, one each in the state of Washington and in Nevada, where an eagle was found with a hole in its neck exposing the bone. According to federal officials wanting to remain anonymous ostensibly for fear of the loss of their jobs, wind farms in the southeastern part of Wyoming have killed more than four dozen golden eagles since 2009.
Nearly all the birds being killed are protected under federal environmental laws. While the wind-energy industry claims that more eagles are killed each year by cars, electrocutions and poisoning than by turbines that has not stopped the federal government from fining other businesses tens of millions of dollars over the past five years for bird deaths. It should be noted that none of these companies are deliberately causing harm to birds, but in the course of their regular business, birds occasionally come in fatal contact with their operations. The government, however, has chosen to punish some businesses while ignoring activities from other favored companies that result in the same bird deaths. This is a clear example of the government’s failure to enforce the laws equally.
Because companies are not required to disclose the number of birds they kill, precise or reliable data on bird deaths is hard to obtain, and the Obama administration will not make voluntarily reported bird deaths public because it argues the information belongs to the energy companies or that revealing it would expose trade secrets or implicate ongoing enforcement investigations. By not enforcing the law, as it is currently doing, the Obama administration is allowing wind companies to build wind farms where they choose regardless of their impact on the bird environment.
The Administration’s Biased Protection of Wind Farms
Besides withholding information, last year, the Department of Interior updated its guidelines and provided additional cover for wind companies that violate the law. According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the death of a bird without a permit is illegal. But, according to the new guidelines, wind-energy companies would have to have a “significant adverse impact” on wildlife or habitat before they would be held accountable.
Further, the Fish and Wildlife Service has is given a specific wind farm permission to kill condors, huge birds with a 9-foot wingspan, which were brought back from the brink of extinction a quarter-century ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told operators of Terra-Gen Power’s wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of California that they will not be prosecuted if their turbines accidentally kill a condor during the expected 30-year life span of its wind farm.[ii]
Under review at the White House is another Obama administration proposed rule that would give wind-energy companies decades of shelter from prosecution for killing protected birds. The proposal would allow companies to be able to apply for 30-year permits to kill a specified number of bald or golden eagles. Currently, companies are eligible to apply for five-year permits. According to Katie Umekubo, a renewable energy attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “It’s basically guaranteeing a black box for 30 years, and they’re saying ‘trust us for oversight’. This is not the path forward.”
In its obsessive pursuit of its green energy policies, the Obama Administration is making exceptions for the wind industry that other U.S. businesses are not afforded. Not only do wind developers continue to receive the production tax credit, but the Obama administration is not holding them accountable for illegal bird deaths, even as they prosecute other businesses when a bird lands on their facilities and dies. According to Representative Ed Whitfield, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Energy & Power, “If you kill an eagle, and you happen to be a private business or you’re a power generator or you’re an oil company or a chemical company, you’re going to be fined. But if you’re a wind energy company, even though the bird you killed may be protected under the Endangered Species Act, you’re going to be protected.”[iii] Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent based in Cody, Wyoming, added, “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.”
[i] Fuel Fix, Wind farms get pass on eagle deaths, May 14, 2013, http://fuelfix.com/blog/2013/05/14/wind-farms-gets-pass-on-eagle-deaths/
[ii] Los Angeles Times, Companies won’t face charges in condor deaths, May 10, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/may/10/local/la-me-killing-condors-20130511
[iii] The Hill, Republican: EPA ‘rewards it friends and punishes its opponents’, May 15, 2013, http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/house/299917-republican-epa-rewards-its-friends-and-punishes-its-opponents#ixzz2TSbUcIRh