If you're looking for a way to simultaneously criticize the president and renewable energy, it doesn't get much easier than the phrase, "Obama is allowing wind companies to kill eagles." Which is true. But a more nuanced assessment is probably in order.
Since many predatory birds are protected by federal law, it's illegal to kill them, even inadvertently. For the operators of wind farms, the turbines of which can strike and kill passing birds as the blades spin, this presents a dilemma: if a turbine kills a protected animal, it's a violation of the law — which operators would be hard-pressed to prevent.
According to a study released in March that is cited by the Associated Press in a report out today, the United States' 51 gigawatts of wind power in 2012 were responsible for an estimated 888,000 bat and 573,000 bird deaths, with 83,000 of the latter involving predatory birds. If those figures are correct — as the AP notes, they're hard to verify — the scale is likely bigger than thought.
But those figures are also out of context. It's estimated, for example, that between 500,000 and one million birds die each year at oil and gas production facilities, though the AP notes that there have been instances in which companies have been fined for those deaths. Between one and nine million birds die on impact with skyscrapers annually in the Toronto area alone. The American Wind Energy Association compares turbine deaths to other causes: fewer than cars, cats, cell towers.
The deaths are perhaps less of an issue than the government's response. Despite the fact that turbines kill protected birds, the Associated Press explains why wind farm operators aren't crowding rural jails. Under Obama, no wind farm has been fined or an operator prosecuted for these violations, though fossil fuel companies have been punished for the same crimes. While in at least one case a wind farm has received a permit to kill a set number of eagles, the AP reports that the administration wants to extend that protection over a longer time period.
[T]he Obama administration has proposed a rule that would give wind-energy companies potentially decades of shelter from prosecution for killing eagles. The regulation is currently under review at the White House.
The proposal, made at the urging of the wind-energy industry, would allow companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill a set number of bald or golden eagles. Previously, companies were only eligible for five-year permits.
Even without the permits, the administration granted the industry a notable loophole: the requirement that bird deaths constitute a "significant adverse impact" on bird populations before the weight of the law is brought to bear.
Part of the problem is that the scale of the wind industry has increased dramatically over recent years. As the Energy Information Administration notes, the wind industry has been the fastest-growing segment of production for several years, making concerns over bird deaths more urgent. According to the AP, the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently investigating 18 cases in which birds were killed by turbines, which could change the no-prosecutions concern.
For Obama, the timing of the report is less than ideal. As he faces widespread critique on a number of fronts, a tagline of "bald-eagle killer" certainly won't help.
Photo: A golden eagle flies over a wind turbine. (AP)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.