Should the Wind Industry be Punished for Bird Fatalities?
Wind energy has grown significantly in the United States. In 2012 wind energy represented 43 percent of all new electricity generation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While the 60,000 megawatts of generation capacity is responsible for $25 billion in investments, some believe it may do more harm than good.
Despite the reduction of carbon emissions and the renewable energy boost for the nation, wind energy is thought to be responsible for numerous bird deaths, including the nation's symbolic bald eagle. Almost 600,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year, according to an estimate published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in March. The estimate also suggests that 80,000 of these birds were raptors, such as federally protected eagles or hawks.
In contrast, a paper produced by the Journal of Raptor Research in September says that there were only 85 eagle fatalities in the past five years, which occurred at 32 different wind farms in 10 states. Despite the broad differences between the reports, killing a single bird without permit is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
So far the wind industry has gone largely unpunished. The Obama administration has even proposed a new rule that would give wind energy companies shelter from prosecution regarding bird fatalities. The policy, which is under review at the White House, would allow wind energy companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill a set number of bald or gold eagles. Currently, companies are eligible to apply for five-year permits.
In most cases like this, the government would be forced to perform a full environmental review before such a regulation could be implemented. But the Obama administration has said the policy was simply an "administrative change" and has avoided a review.
The issue at hand is whether or not the wind industry should pay hefty fines for killing protected animals. Should the industry be exempt from the fees imposed on other companies? Is the environmentally friendly, renewable energy generation worth the risk of losing large populations of birds?
The case for retribution
While the wind industry has remained fairly unscathed by environmental protection laws against killing birds, other energy industries have paid a hefty price. BP was fined $100 million for harming more than 8,000 migratory birds after it spilled 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. ExxonMobil pleaded guilty to killing 85 birds in five states and agreed to pay a $600,000 fine. PacifiCorp, which operates coal power plants in Wyoming, was fined more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along its power lines and substations.
If other energy industries have to suffer the hefty fines associated with accidental bird fatalities, why should the wind industry be exempt?
Some believe not enforcing laws against the harm of endangered animals won't give companies an incentive to build wind farms in areas that aren't as heavily populated with the creatures. Maybe fines could prompt careful thought about where to place wind farms, and spur technological growth to minimize the danger to these protected species.
Despite the Obama administration's support of wind energy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn't sitting idly by. In May, the agency said it was investigating 18 avian death cases involving wind turbines, seven of which were referred to the Justice Department. It plans to prosecute those who don't have proper permitting and are in noncompliance with the law.
Perhaps the biggest reason for challenging the wind industry is the effect it has on the birds themselves. Environmentalists may care about clean energy and the effects of carbon dioxide, but the physical effect this green energy option has on animals should be taken into consideration too.
For example, the bald eagle population reached a record low in 1963, with just 400 breeding pairs in existence. Habitat loss was cited as a cause for the drop. Since then, the protected birds have rebounded and were even taken off the endangered species list in 2007. Now there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the United States, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. While eagles may be on the rebound now, will they continue to thrive as more wind farms are developed across the nation?
The case against retribution
Wind energy is essential to a clean energy future. The National Energy Modeling System predicts that over the next 20 years installed wind capacity will reach 100,000 megawatts, creating enough clean energy to eliminate 69 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and save consumers $17.6 billion per year on energy costs.
However, with stricter regulations on the wind industry, development could slow and never reach these predicted levels. That would mean more costs for American consumers, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And in terms of climate change, if we continue to use fossil fuel generated energy and pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, aren't those same birds put at risk?
Furthermore, deaths cause by wind turbines are minimal when you look at other forms of avian deaths each year—especially others that go unpunished. According to the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 80 million birds are killed on U.S. roadways every year, up to 976 million birds die each year from collisions with windows, an estimated 130 million bird die due to power lines, and even domestic and feral cats are responsible for 100 million annual bird deaths.
The most frequent cause of death for eagles is accidental trauma, according to the National Wildlife Health Center. Impacts with power lines, vehicles and other structures are responsible for 23 percent of bald eagle deaths and 27 percent of golden eagle deaths. While wind turbines can certainly be considered one of these structures, the deaths incurred are marginal when compared to the fatalities incurred by vehicles or even windows.
Will drivers now have to pay fines for ever bird that hits their car? Would it be environmentally responsible to topple every skyscraper to the ground so birds can avoid flying into the structures? Should cat owners be held accountable for the instincts that come naturally to their pet?
If wind energy is punished, what about everyone else?