Big Wind’s trail of wings

Alex Fitzsimmons Policy Associate, Institute for Energy Research
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One eagle was found lying lifeless with a hole in its neck that exposed the bone. Another was found starving and near death with limbs that appeared to be twisted off. Struck down by wind turbines, these eagles were victims of a federal crime. The government prosecutes individuals and companies that kill birds in violation of federal law, yet a recent Associated Press investigation revealed that the Obama administration has never taken legal action against a wind energy company for killing birds, even though wind turbines kill more than 573,000 birds annually.

As federal wildlife officials turn a blind eye to the wind industry’s slaughter, they exercise strict enforcement when others run afoul of the law. For example, in 2011 the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Continental Resources with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because a bird called the Say’s Phoebe died in one of Continental’s oil pits. The DOJ harassed Continental over the death of a single bird that wasn’t even endangered, yet the administration refuses to prosecute wind farms that maim and kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year.

In another case of blatant bias, PacifiCorp paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines at the substations of its coal plants in Wyoming. But when PacifiCorp killed at least 20 eagles at wind farms in Wyoming, the company heard nary a peep from the Obama administration.

The Obama administration is currently grappling with multiple scandals stemming from a dismissive attitude toward transparency and accountability, from the IRS targeting conservative groups to the DOJ tapping journalists’ phones. But let’s not forget about sins of the past, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other senior EPA officials using alias email accounts to conduct official agency business. Or the EPA’s failure to disclose the data sets used to justify costly clean air rules, despite repeated requests by Senate Republicans.

Giving wind companies a license to kill thousands of birds while prosecuting oil companies for the same offense is just another example of the Obama administration’s preferential treatment for the wind industry. During President Obama’s first term, the administration funneled about $1 billion per year in tax credits to wind energy projects. Moreover, the one-year extension of the wind production tax credit is expected to cost taxpayers $12 billion. A permanent extension, as the president has called for, would cost $24.7 billion over 10 years.

The AP’s bird exposé comes after federal officials told California wind farm operator Terra-Gen Power on May 10 that the company will not be prosecuted for killing endangered condors. Its wind farm, which is located in the Tehachapi Mountains, just north of Los Angeles, is expected to have a 30-year lifespan. This is the first time the federal government has allowed a company to “take” (injure or kill) a California condor, one of the most endangered bird species in the world.

Understandably, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is fed up with the selective prosecutions. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) started allowing companies to apply for five-year incidental bird take permits, which ABC supported. But now, at the behest of the wind industry, FWS may change the rule to allow 30-year take permits.

In a letter to the Interior Department, ABC expressed concern over the administration’s “private, closed-to-the public meetings” to discuss the proposed changes. In another letter, ABC questioned the issuance of an eagle take permit for the West Butte Wind Project because “discussion of potential impacts of the project [was] not objective and shows bias toward granting the permit.”

On his first day in office, President Obama promised to make his “administration the most open and transparent in history.” Yet the recent flap over migratory bird deaths is just the latest example of the Obama administration’s open flouting of the values the president pledged to uphold. Taken together, the scandals expose an ideologically driven administration more concerned with protecting allies and punishing opponents than evenly enforcing the law.

Alex Fitzsimmons is a policy associate at the Institute for Energy Research.