May 15, 2020
On May 1, the Toledo Blade reported that a wind turbine in Bowling Green, Ohio had killed an adult bald eagle. Six days later, the Treasury Department announced that it would provide another extension of the production tax credit, the lucrative subsidy that the wind industry has relied on for decades.
The death of the eagle provides a stark reminder of the deadly toll that the wind industry is having on some of America’s most iconic wildlife and how that toll will skyrocket if the many proponents of an all-renewable-energy system get their wish. And the extension of the PTC provides a stark reminder of how an influential industry can manipulate the Washington favor factory and in doing so, turn what were supposed to be temporary subsidies into permanent ones worth billions of dollars per year – and even more remarkably, get those subsidies extended without ever getting the money appropriated by Congress.
The eagle was killed at the Wood County Landfill in January. Matt Markey of the Toledo Blade broke the story. Markey reports that two employees of the landfill heard the turbine hit the eagle. Upon hearing the noise, they turned to “witness a large bird tumbling to the frozen ground. What they soon learned was the severed wing of the bird floated in its slower descent and landed about 50 feet away.” The employees reported the eagle death to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which collected the animal and contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (The four-turbine wind project responsible for the bald eagle’s death is 50-percent owned by the city of Bowling Green. The project provides 1.5 percent of the city’s electricity.)
Thirty years ago when a dead bald eagle was found in an uncovered oil waste pit in southern Oklahoma, law enforcement officials launched a multi-state, multi-jurisdiction crackdown on the malefactors. Back then, as I reported for the Christian Science Monitor, biologists estimated that about 600,000 migratory birds per year were dying every year in the waste pits. Nearly every one of those birds were protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of America’s oldest — and most important — wildlife-protection laws. Special agents with the Division of Law Enforcement at the US Fish and Wildlife Serve went on to bring dozens of cases against oil and gas companies for their sloppy operations and as part of their settlement agreements, the companies were forced to close, or put nets over, their waste pits.
Alas, there’s little reason to expect that the Fish and Wildlife Service will enforce the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the Ohio case. (Eagles are protected under both laws.) Indeed, under the Trump administration — and under the Obama administration before it – the wind industry has lobbied to gut enforcement of the MBTA, which protects 1,093 species of birds. In 2017, the Department of Interior’s Solicitor General issued an opinion that said it would no longer enforce the MBTA in cases of incidental bird deaths, saying that doing so “raises serious due process concerns and is contrary to the fundamental principle that ambiguity in criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of defendants.”
In an email, Tina Shaw, a public affairs specialist at the Bloomington, Minnesota office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told me that the “case is currently ongoing” and that it involves “a mature bald eagle.” She said her agency was working with Ohio officials, and that the Fish and Wildlife Service could not share any photos of the dead eagle. “At this point in the open investigation, this is all the information we are able to share,” she said.
Mike Parr, the president of the American Bird Conservancy, says his group is not anti-wind and that it is seeking a “middle-ground” on regulations. But he also said that “The wind industry could prevent a lot of these bird kills, but they don’t…The regulations have all been undone in their favor and against protection.”
In December, Parr’s group filed suit in federal court against the Department of Energy and the US Army Corps of Engineers, claiming that the federal government failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act in their evaluation of the Icebreaker Wind project, which proposes to put wind turbines in Lake Erie. The Conservancy contends that the wind project would “pose substantial collision risks to the enormous numbers of birds that use the area throughout the year, including large concentrations of migrating songbirds” and waterfowl.
How many eagles and other birds are being killed by wind turbines? The short answer is we don’t really know. Getting an accurate count of the number of birds killed by turbines is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, the wind industry considers bird kills to be a trade secret and it has even sued to prevent government agencies from releasing data on bird kills. In 2016, Iberdrola, a Spanish company that is trying to expand its wind projects in the US, sued to prevent the state of Ohio from releasing bird mortality data from its Blue Creek wind project, claiming that the information is “confidential trade secret-protected information.”
Despite the industry’s attempts to keep bird-kill data from the public, it’s clear that the magnitude of bird deaths being killed by wind turbines today is greater than the 600,000 migratory birds per year that were being killed by oil pits back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wind turbines are also killing large numbers of bats.
Among the best-known studies of wind-related wildlife kills have been done by biologist K. Shawn Smallwood. In 2013, he published a study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin which estimated that in 2012 wind turbines killed about 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors. (A 2014 study published by the wind industry claimed turbines were killing about 368,000 birds per year.)
In 2012, the US had about 60,000 megawatts of wind capacity. Today, the industry has about 107,000 megawatts. Therefore if Smallwood’s numbers are correct and bird kills are occurring at the same rate today as they were in 2012, then Big Wind may now be killing about 1 million birds per year, including roughly 150,000 raptors.
On March 12, Smallwood updated his bat mortality estimates in a paper published in the journal Diversity. Using a new methodology, Smallwood found that wind turbines may have caused “2.22 million bat fatalities across the USA in 2014.” He went on to point out that the US now has more than 100,000 megawatts of wind capacity “and bat fatalities likely increased proportionally with this increase in capacity, so long as the pool of vulnerable bats has not diminished. The decline of hoary bats in the Pacific Northwest suggests that the pool of vulnerable bats might be diminishing. It is imperative, therefore, that methods of fatality monitoring improve to more accurately estimate bat fatalities.”
Other scientists are also sounding the alarm about wind turbines and bats. In 2016, two scientists from the US Geological Survey, Thomas J. O’Shea and Paul M. Cryan, published a paper which said that wind turbines are the largest cause of mass bat mortality, and exceed the toll taken by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that afflicts bats. In a discussion of the paper, Cryan said that the wind industry’s toll on bat populations could have long-term negative effects. “Bats are long-lived and very slow reproducers,” he said. “Their populations rely on very high adult survival rates. That means their populations recover from big losses very slowly.”
On its website, the American Wind Energy Association (which operates on an annual budget of about $22 million) points out that cats are responsible for lots of bird kills. That is no doubt true, but Sylvester the Cat isn’t killing any eagles. Wind turbines are. The association also says “the vast majority of wind facilities (more than 90 percent) do not observe any golden eagle mortalities at all.” Again, that may be true, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has documented major increases in eagle kills by wind turbines. In a 2013 study, agency biologists found that the number of eagles killed by wind turbines increased to 24 in 2011 from two in 2007. During the study period, the agency documented 85 eagles that had been killed by wind turbines and Joel Pagel, the study’s lead author, told me that the figure was “an absolute minimum.” Among the carcasses: six bald eagles.
Given the large number of birds and bats already being killed by wind turbines, it is abundantly obvious that any major expansion of wind energy will result in even more destruction of America’s wildlife. An all-renewable plan being promoted by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson — whose work has repeatedly been touted by climate activists Josh Fox and Bill McKibben — would require installing nearly 25 times as much wind capacity as now exists in the US, with the majority of that capacity on land. Any such expansion — or even an expansion that doubles or triples existing wind capacity — will have devastating effects on America’s bird and bat populations.
A study published last October in Science found a drastic decline in North American avifauna over the past few decades. Led by Kenneth Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the study evaluated 529 species of birds in the continental US and Canada. It found a “net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance.” It concluded with this warning: “Our results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification, coastal disturbance, and direct anthropogenic mortality, (emphasis added) all exacerbated by climate change, to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna.”
Despite the enormous toll on wildlife, the wind industry continues to collect billions of dollars in federal subsidies. Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican and the wind industry’s go-to supporter in the Senate, has said: “As the father of the first wind-energy tax credit in 1992, I can say that the tax credit was never meant to be permanent.” But the wind industry has done all it can to make it permanent because the PTC is a critical part of their business. Wind developers rely on “tax equity” to finance their projects. Tax equity is based on the wind project’s predicted cash flow and expected federal tax benefits. In 2017, Keith Martin, a lawyer at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, explained that tax equity “accounts currently for 50% to 60% of the capital cost of a typical wind farm and 40% to 50% of the capital cost of a typical solar installation.”
Under a deal struck in 2015, the wind industry agreed to phase out the PTC at the end of 2019. But at the end of 2019, it reneged on the deal and got an extension of the subsidy. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department agreed to yet another extension. Those extensions are costing taxpayers billions of dollars. According to an April report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, between 2010 and 2019, the wind industry received about $36.8 billion in federal subsidies. (Solar got $34.4 billion; nuclear got $15.4 billion.)
Between 2020 and 2029, according to projections from the Treasury Department, thanks to the PTC, the wind industry will collect another $33.7 billion. The subsidies being given to the wind industry are larger than any other energy-related tax treatment.
John Hageman is a retired biologist and avid outdoorsman who lives in Weston, Ohio. In March, he observed an active bald eagle nest near the edge of the Wood County Landfill and reported it to state wildlife officials. In a phone interview, he told me that the nest is within 500 meters of the closest turbine and he is concerned that another bald eagle, either a “fledgling or the parent bird will be killed” by one of the turbines at the landfill.
Hageman, who serves on the conservation committee of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio, said the recovery of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction a few decades ago has been a “great success.” But now, he said, they are becoming “collateral damage,” in the push for renewables. “People are willing to accept the death of eagles for the green energy movement.”
The bottom line here is that “green energy” isn’t free. It depends on multi-billion-dollar infusions from the federal treasury. The wind industry has been given a license to kill America’s wildlife and taxpayers are subsidizing the slaughter.
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