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Elliott Negin: Wind energy threat to birds is overblown

Elliott Negin

WASHINGTON — Wind energy is one of the cleanest, most abundant, sustainable and cost-effective ways to generate electricity, and North Dakota is a national leader.

Last year, wind turbines generated 15.6 percent of the state’s electricity, powering more than a half million average homes and providing more than 2,000 jobs, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

What’s more, the potential for wind in North Dakota is sky high. It’s estimated that it could meet more than 230 times the state’s current electricity demand.

Regardless, wind has its detractors, and one of their biggest complaints is the threat they say it poses to birds.

In fact, compared with other culprits, that threat is minimal. The top human-built environmental threat to our feathered friends — besides habitat degradation and destruction — 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 estimate that every year as many as 175 million birds die by flying into power lines, 72 million are poisoned by misapplied pesticides, 6.6 million perish by hitting communications towers; and as many as a million birds die in oil and gas industry fluid waste pits.

Conversely, a study published last year in Biological Conservation estimates that land-based U.S. wind turbines kill 140,000 to 328,000 birds annually. That’s not insignificant, but certainly not the scourge that wind foes contend.

Wind opponents also allege that the Obama administration is playing favorites, treating the wind industry with kid gloves when it comes to bird deaths while aggressively prosecuting the oil and gas industry for similar infractions.

But until last November, no administration had ever prosecuted a wind company under the two main federal bird protection laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. That’s when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Duke Energy, which pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms.

And more prosecutions may be in the wings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently investigating 17 wind industry-related bird death cases and has referred six of them to the Justice Department.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, prosecution under the two laws always is the last resort, regardless of the industry or technology in question. The agency tries to work with violators to fix the problem before it refers a case to federal prosecutors.

For example, FWS inspectors routinely check for bird carcasses in oil and gas company waste pits. When they discover dead birds, they notify the responsible company and give it the chance to rectify the problem by installing netting.

If the company pays a modest fine and corrects the problem, FWS will not file a case. That happens only after repeated violations, and even if a company is ultimately convicted and placed on probation, the fine is relatively small.

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 in one of its waste pits. Wind opponents routinely cite this case when alleging the Obama administration is treating the oil and gas industry unfairly.

But they don’t mention that Continental Resources and the two other companies had been killing birds for years. The Justice Department 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.

In the case of wind farms, both the federal government and the wind industry have taken steps to mitigate their threat to birds. In 2008, a number of leading wind developers joined with conservation and science groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, to launch the American Wind Wildlife Institute to promote wind development and protect wildlife at the same time.

Four years later, FWS issued new voluntary guidelines covering siting, construction and other key issues for wind developers to minimize harm to birds and their habitats.

Finally, there’s one last critical point that wind opponents conveniently ignore: Climate change threatens hundreds of migratory bird species, which already are stressed by habitat loss, invasive species and other environmental threats.

A 2012 report by the National Wildlife Federation went so far as to name climate change the most serious threat facing America’s migratory birds today.

So, if wind opponents were really concerned about the welfare of birds, they would be calling for more wind farms and other carbon-free energy sources to replace coal, oil and natural gas.

In other words, their argument against wind is strictly for the birds.

Negin is director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists.