OUR OPINION: Oil, wind firms alike should protect birdsIf that happens -- if the wildlife standards are made mandatory -- then errant or careless wind-farm operators will start being prosecuted, too.
By: Tom Dennis for the Herald, Grand Forks Herald
It's true that in western North Dakota, the discovery of 28 dead migratory birds in oil waste pits this summer has led to federal charges against seven oil companies.
It's also true that wind turbines kill birds -- and as yet, no power company has been prosecuted for that.
A grievous double standard?
Double standard, yes. But grievous? That's harder to say, given the fact that society is rife with double standards, and some of them serve a useful purpose.
For example, if you kill a cat by directing your dogs to attack it, you're likely to be charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, as happened to a Illinois man in June. Meanwhile, animal shelters "put down" four million cats and dogs a year. Why is one killing illegal while the other is common in every city and town in America? Because our society has decided that the killing of animals should be done under controlled and humane conditions. That's why.
LIkewise, preventing the deaths of birds in oil waste pits is "easy and cheap," said Rob Lee, a former lead bird-kills investigator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a 2009 interview. It only involves putting nets over the waste pits and oil tanks; and for oil companies, society has deemed that a reasonable expense.
But wind turbines are something else again (as are cats and glass-sided skyscrapers, two other giant sources of bird deaths).
Rightly or wrongly, society has prioritized wind power development in an effort to cut dependence on fossil fuels.
Furthermore, wind-power is relatively new and still is undergoing rapid development. And as part of that development, steps are in fact being taken to minimize bird kills.
Although none of those steps are easy, and none of them are cheap.
For example, the early turbines built in Altamont Pass, Calif., feature narrow blades that spin fast, wreaking incredible havoc on birds. That violence is one reason why newer turbines boast much bigger blades that spin more slowly, reducing the harm to birds.
Siting decisions have evolved, too. Today's wind farms are less likely to be built near bird habitats or on migratory bird routes, even when those areas are best suited for wind.
Still, wind farms continue to kill too many birds, many conservationists say. Research is under way to find out if that's true.
And if it is, then the next step is likely to be mandatory controls. The American Bird Conservancy thinks that time already has come: "American Bird Conservancy supports wind power when it is bird-smart, and believes that birds and wind power can co-exist if the wind industry is held to mandatory standards that protect birds," the organization has declared.
And if that happens -- if the wildlife standards are made mandatory -- then errant or careless wind-farm operators will start being prosecuted, too.
On balance, if the double standard in North Dakota leads to changes, let it be toward tighter regulation of wind turbines rather than looser enforcement at oil pits. It's good for society to exploit many sources of energy, and it's also good to take reasonable steps to protect the environment. It's entirely possible to do both.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald