Wind farms breeze past laws protecting vulnerable birds

by Whitney Williams
Posted 5/14/13, 10:20 am

It happens about once a month in Converse County, Wyo.—A golden eagle, soaring over the barren foothills of one of America’s green-energy boomtowns, suddenly meets its destiny: a wind farm’s spinning turbine. 

Killing these iconic birds is not just an irreplaceable loss for a vulnerable species. It’s also a federal crime—one for which the Obama administration has prosecuted oil and power companies time and time again when the birds drown in their waste pits or get electrocuted by their power lines.

But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that break this law repeatedly, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Instead, the government shields the industry from liability, and helps keep the full extent of the deaths a secret.

The country’s wind farms kill more than 573,000 birds each year, including 83,000 hunting birds—hawks, falcons, and eagles—according to an estimate published in March in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Actual numbers may be much higher though, as many companies aren’t required to disclose how many birds they kill. 

Wind power, a pollution-free energy, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break for the industry. Lobbyists and executives have taken advantage of their favored status, using it to help steer U.S. energy policy. Because of their influence, their green industry is allowed to do not-so-green things, like killing protected species with impunity and concealing the environmental consequences of sprawling wind farms.

"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."

But the Obama administration has refused to accept that cost when the fossil-fuel industry is to blame.

"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, Wyo.

Meanwhile, at the urging of the wind-energy industry, the Obama administration has proposed a rule that could give wind-energy companies decades of shelter from prosecution for killing eagles. The regulation is currently under review at the White House.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Whitney Williams

Whitney is a member of WORLD's development team.

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