Wind turbines have killed at least 67 eagles in the last five years, and probably a lot more, according to a report issued last September by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.
“Can’t be helped,” said the Obama administration, in so many words, when it announced last Friday that it would start issuing permits to utilities and wind farm operators allowing them to accidentally kill a set number of eagles per year for 30 years without penalty, provided they do everything practicable to avoid killing the birds. Companies would have to take even more measures if they kill more birds than their permits allow.
(It turns out that the tips of those seemingly slow-turning turbine blades are actually moving at 179 mph, and eagles collide with them because when they’re looking for prey on the ground they don’t always look where they’re going.)
Killing eagles is a violation of federal law. If the Justice Department chose to pursue the cases, utilities could be looking at major fines, wind farms being shut down, and maybe even executives doing some hard time. So far the Justice Department has chosen to look the other way, because the administration believes that expanding the wind power industry is so critical to the fight against global warming that some birds are just going to have to take one for the team.
Existing law and regulations allow the administration to issue such permits, but only for five years, after which they can be renewed. The Obama administration decided to extend the timeframe to 30 years (without bothering to ask Congress, of course) to give wind farm operators the sort of certainty they could take to the bank. Literally take to the bank — the industry was having trouble obtaining financing for new wind farms because of uncertainty over its liability for eagle kills.
Needless to say, the Obama administration’s decision ruffled green feathers.
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, [the Interior Department] wrote the wind industry a blank check,” Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. The society said it would challenge the decision.
If it does, chances are the challenge will soar beyond the welfare of eagles. That’s because the wind industry has a flying critter problem, and eagles are the least of it. According to the Associated Press, a study earlier this year found that U.S. wind turbines kill 1.4 million birds and bats a year (the breakdown is 800,000 birds and 600,000 bats).
And the problem is apt to get a lot bigger. According to the American Wind Energy Association, as of the end of 2012, there were more than 45,000 “utility-size” wind turbines in the United States. (There are probably around 50,000 by now).
Last year, wind accounted for about 3.5 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. Alternative energy advocates think that percentage could be increased to 20 percent to 30 percent without destabilizing the grid. Reaching that goal would require another 250,000 to 300,000 wind turbines, with a commensurate rise in bird/bat fatalities.
So did the Obama administration do the right thing by cutting the wind energy slack on bird killings?
If you believe that global warming caused by human activity is an existential threat to life on the planet, or at least to civilization as we know it, the answer is obviously yes.
There are about 3 million species on the planet, and all of them are supposedly threatened by global warming.
The sheer scale of the technological assault that will have to be mounted in a short time to curtail the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, never mind to reverse it, all but guarantees that some of those species suffer collateral damage — maybe even extinction in some cases — as a result of the effort. But if the threat is as serious as guys like Al Gore and James Hansen (the retired NASA climatologist who is arguably the dean of American global warming alarmists) say it is, then it can’t be helped. The fact that the Obama administration is not letting attempts to increase U.S. alternate energy production be derailed every time an eagle, or a sparrow for that matter, flies into a windmill shows that it is prepared to make real trade-offs to combat global warming. Good. Like James Hansen’s endorsement of nuclear power a couple weeks ago, it shows a seriousness of purpose that’s been notable by its absence among American environmentalists up to now.
Still, the wind turbine issue casts a couple of points into sharp relief:
1) Alternative energy isn’t entirely benign. If we are going to make transitioning to it a national goal, we need to recognize that fact at the outset and, if we can’t mitigate the negative consequences, be prepared to accept them. 2) Given the number of birds who get done in every year by, among other things, cars, cats and collisions with windows — more than a billion by some estimates — but whose species continue to thrive, it’s clear that a lot of avian species are able to adapt pretty well to a world filled with rampaging, habitat-destroying Homo sapiens.
Maybe creatures that can adapt to having their environment sliced up by 8 million miles of roads in a century and the transformation of several hundred million acres of North American forest and prairie to mono-crop agriculture can deal with the relatively minor intrusion of a few hundred thousand windmills.
Or with the changes wrought by global warming, for that matter.
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