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The Wind Energy Threat to Birds Is Overblown (Op-Ed)

Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). This article is adapted from a piece that appeared on the Huffington Post. Negin contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Wind energy is one of the cleanest, most abundant, sustainable — and increasingly cost-effective — ways to generate electricity. It is also one of the fastest growing electricity sources around the globe. In the United States alone, more than 13,000 megawatts of new capacity was installed in 2012, and by the year's end, there were enough wind turbines to power 15 million typical American homes — without toxic pollutants or carbon emissions.

Still, wind has its detractors. One of the most prominent is Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based, pro-market, anti-government think tank backed by ExxonMobil and Charles Koch, the billionaire co-owner of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries. Over the last few years, Bryce has been bashing wind energy in the pages of the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and other publications, charging that wind turbines are, among other things, ugly, noisy and a threat to public health.

But what really seems to stick in his craw is their purported impact on birds.

Bryce's Oct.11, 2013, Wall Street Journal column is typical, rehashing an argument he made in a September 2009 column in the same newspaper, in the National Review last May and the Wall Street Journal again last February. Bryce contends that the wind industry kills a "vast" number of birds every year — especially eagles — and insists the administration of President Barack Obama is playing favorites, allowing wind developers to go scot-free while "aggressively" prosecuting the oil and gas industry for the same infraction. He calls it a "pernicious double standard."

But before you let Bryce's charges ruffle your feathers, you should know that they're wildly overblown. Yes, wind turbines unfortunately do kill some birds, including eagles, and the industry needs to address that fact. But how big a threat do they pose compared with other culprits? You wouldn't know by reading Bryce. Nor would you know that, if you compare the damage various energy technologies do to the environment, wildlife, public health and the climate, wind is one of the most benign.

In other words, context is everything, and Bryce doesn't provide it.

The main culprits

Given how Bryce portrays the wind industry, one would assume it's one of the nation's top bird killers. In fact, wind turbines are way down in the pecking order.

Besides habitat degradation and destruction, the top human-built environmental threat to our feathered friends are buildings. As many as 970 million birds crash into them annually, according to a June 2013 study in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Other studies, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), estimate that every year as many as 175 million birds die by flying into power lines, which electrocute tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands more; 72 million are poisoned by misapplied pesticides; nearly 6.6 million perish by hitting communications towers; and as many as 1 million birds die in oil and gas industry fluid waste pits.

By contrast, a March 2013 study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimates that land-based wind turbines killed as many as 573,000 birds in 2012. That's not insignificant, but certainly not the scourge that Bryce implies.

What about the threat wind turbines pose to bald and golden eagles? Turbines certainly are a particular problem for raptors. When they're hunting, they primarily train their eyes on the ground, scanning for prey, and they can be distracted by other raptors encroaching on their territory. Eagles also have limited peripheral vision. All of these factors can spell trouble, especially given the fact that turbine blade tips can spin as fast as 180 miles per hour.

In his October 11 column, Bryce cited a study in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research that found that wind turbines in 10 states killed 85 eagles between 1997 and the end of June 2012 — 79 golden eagles and six bald eagles. That's an average of less than six a year, but most of the deaths occurred between 2008 and 2012 due to industry growth, and the study's authors were quick to point out that the number of turbine-related eagle deaths is likely much higher. The study didn't include wind industry-related eagle deaths in three other states as well at the 1980s-era Altamont Pass in Northern California, which has been killing an average of 67 eagles a year.

For discussion's sake, let's add the 67 eagle deaths a year at Altamont Pass to the 85 the study confirmed. Over a 15-and-a-half-year period, that would amount to 1,124 dead eagles. That sounds like a lot. But how does that compare with overall non-natural eagle deaths?

When an eagle is killed and people find a carcass, FWS asks them to send it to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver. About 2,500 show up every year, according to FWS, although certainly more go unreported. Using that number as a benchmark, the number of dead eagles annually from 1997 through June 2012 would amount to approximately 38,750 birds. Based on these admittedly crude estimations, at least 97 percent of the eagle deaths were attributable to causes other than commercial, land-based wind turbines. Often FWS can't determine the exact cause of death, but apparently poachers, transmission lines, pesticides and lead poisoning from bullet-ridden carrion killed significantly more than turbines.

Same old, same old

FWS is currently investigating 18 wind-industry-related bird-death cases and has referred seven of them to the Justice Department. Even so, as Bryce constantly complains, the Obama administration has yet to prosecute a wind developer under the two main federal bird protection laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act). Both the Eagle Act and the MBTA, which covers more than 800 bird species, prohibit anyone from "taking" — hunting, capturing, selling or killing — a bird without a permit.

As Bryce acknowledges, however, no previous Justice Department — not even under the fossil fuel-friendly George W. Bush administration — ever took a wind developer to court for violating either bird law. Building and communications tower owners also have been spared. Meanwhile, federal prosecution of the oil and gas industry and pesticide applicators goes back to the 1970s, and the government brought its first case against an electric utility for electrocuting birds in 1998. So perhaps there's a better explanation for the way the laws have been applied than what Bryce calls an Obama administration double standard.

The MBTA, which was enacted in 1918, is a strict liability law. That means if you accidentally kill a migratory bird with your car, for example, or a bird slams into your living room picture window, technically you have committed a misdemeanor, despite the fact it was unintentional. But it's impractical to enforce the law that way. The Justice Department will consider legal action only if a violator repeatedly breaks the law and is in a position to take reasonable steps to prevent further harm. Oil and gas companies can easily prevent birds from dying in their waste pits by stretching nets over them. Electric utilities can insulate their transmission poles to prevent electrocutions. But it is much more difficult to remediate skyscrapers or communication towers — or wind turbines, for that matter — once they are in place.

Unlike the MBTA, the Eagle Act, which was enacted in 1940, doesn't protect eagles from lawful activities that kill them unintentionally. It only applies to individuals or corporations without a permit that "knowingly, or with wanton disregard for the consequences" take a bald or golden eagle. That makes it much more difficult for the government to prosecute violators than under the MBTA.

Prosecution as a last resort

With either law, prosecution is a last resort. FWS — which has only 230 field agents monitoring wildlife deaths nationwide — tries to work with violators to fix the problem before it refers a case to the Justice Department.

For example, for decades FWS inspectors have been routinely checking for bird carcasses in oil and gas company liquid-waste pits, which kill as many as a million birds annually. When FWS agents discover dead birds, they generally notify the responsible company and give it the opportunity to rectify the problem by installing netting or screening to keep birds from landing on the pits. If the company pays a modest fine — usually $500 and an additional $250 per bird — and corrects the problem, FWS will not file a case with a U.S. Attorney's office. That happens only after repeated violations. And even if a company is ultimately convicted and put on probation, the fine is relatively small.

Bryce actually cited one of these cases involving repeat offenders as evidence that the Obama administration is "aggressively" prosecuting the oil and gas industry, but he left out some key information that would have undermined his argument.

In 2011, FWS filed criminal charges against three companies drilling in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation. "One of those companies, Continental Resources, was indicted for killing a single bird" that died in one of its waste pits, Bryce squawked in the Wall Street Journal in February and again in the National Review in May.

One bird?! Pretty outrageous, no? But Bryce failed to mention that Continental Resources and the two other companies, Brigham Oil & Gas and Newfield Production Co., had been flouting the law — and killing birds — for years. The Justice Department merely charged them with violations based on the number of dead birds FWS agents found when they made their last site visit following years of imploring the companies to install nets. No matter, the district court ultimately dismissed the charges, issuing a ruling that squarely conflicts with how the government has traditionally interpreted the MBTA.

Making turbines more bird-friendly

In his zeal to disparage wind power, Bryce also doesn't credit the Obama administration and the wind industry for what they're doing to address the problem. In response to concerns about increasing turbine-related bird deaths, FWS issued new voluntary guidelines in March 2012 for wind developers to minimize harm to birds and their habitats. The guidelines, which cover siting, construction, monitoring and operation, were developed with the help of an advisory committee composed of experts from universities, industry, government agencies and conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society. (Some groups, such as the American Bird Conservancy, insist those guidelines should be mandatory.)

Besides collaborating on the FWS guidelines for new wind farms, the industry is working with conservationists, science groups and government agencies to make their currently operating facilities more bird-friendly. For example, a number of leading wind companies and other industry players are partners in the American Wind Wildlife Institute, which the Union of Concerned Scientists helped launch in 2008. The institute's mission is to "facilitate timely and responsible development of wind energy, while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat." The main point? You can do both.

Other remediation efforts, some admittedly due to lawsuits, also are underway. As a part of a settlement with the California state government and environmental groups, for example, the largest wind power company in the Altamont Pass is replacing thousands of outdated turbines with a lot fewer, taller, more-efficient ones that pose less of a threat to the golden eagles, hawks and other birds that patrol the skies in the area. So far those efforts and other modifications appear to be producing results.

Finally, there's one last critical point that Robert Bryce conveniently ignores: Climate change threatens hundreds of migratory bird species, which are already stressed by habitat loss, invasive species and other environmental threats. A 2010 report by FWS and other federal agencies, in collaboration with such conservation groups as the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy, found that global warming will have an increasingly devastating effect on migratory birds in all habitats. And earlier this year, the National Wildlife Federation published a similar report that concludes unequivocally that climate change today is the most serious threat facing America's migratory birds.

Regardless, Bryce — who has called himself an "agnostic" on climate science — likely will continue to attack renewable energy at every opportunity on behalf of his benefactors. And I'm sure the ideologically driven editors at the Wall Street Journal's opinion section and the National Review will continue to run his columns. But there's no getting around the fact that the world has to wean itself off fossil fuels as soon as possible, and one of the answers, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Update: I posted this blog on Friday morning, Nov. 22, and at the time, no U.S. wind energy company had ever been prosecuted for violating federal bird protection laws. That changed later in the day when the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with Duke Energy, which pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms. As I mentioned in my blog, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been investigating 18 wind-industry-related bird-death cases and referred seven of them to the Justice Department. Presumably one of those seven was the case against Duke. For more on the Duke plea agreement, click here.

This article was adapted from "Wind Energy Threat to Birds Is Overblown," which first appeared on the Huffington Post. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

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