Should industrial wind facilities have to pay a $100,000 fine — as oil and gas companies do — if they kill an endangered species? Many environmental activists think so. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does not.
In a reversal of its official opinion, the FWS recently announced “it will not penalize the operator of a Southern California wind operator if its turbines kill or injure one California condor,” reports environmental journalist Chris Clarke in ReWire.
With fewer than 250 birds in the wild, the condor is one of the world’s most critically endangered animals, and industrial wind is encroaching on the bird’s range in the Tehachapi Mountains. From the article:
FWS biologist Ray Bransfield told ReWire that FWS has completed its Biological Opinion (BiOp) on condors for Google and Citicorp’s Alta East project, which would be built and operated by wind developer Terra-Gen. Occupying 2,592 acres, mostly on public lands, near the intersection of state routes 14 and 58 in Kern County, Alta East would generate a maximum of 318 megawatts of electrical power with 106 wind turbines, each with 190-foot-long blades.
FWS’s BiOp for Alta East includes an “incidental take statement” that in effect allows one “lethal take” of a California condor. “Incidental take” of a protected species is a term of art covering any kind of injury, harassment or disturbance, or even habitat damage that a project causes inadvertently. “Lethal take” is when the species in question dies.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has yet to approve the project. If it does, and a single condor is killed during the 30-year operating life of the facility, the FWS would have to undertake a “formal review” of the project’s impact on condors. Recent history suggests this safeguard is unlikely to be worth much, Clarke argues:
Endangered species advocates were hoping for a “jeopardy” finding when solar developer BrightSource started finding hundreds more federally threatened desert tortoises on the site of its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System than were forecast in that project’s BiOp. The original BiOp and take permit allowed BrightSource to kill, harm, harass, or disturb no more than 40 tortoises. Once it was clear there were a lot more tortoises than that onsite, BLM estimated as many as 2,862 tortoises (including eggs) could be harmed by the project. Despite the 70-fold increase in potential “takes,” FWS merely required a few changes to the project’s tortoise relocation plan and issued a revised BiOp that allowed construction to proceed.
The Alta East project may “take” many more than one condor in 30 years. Condors, notes Clarke, “fly slowly, their 9-foot wingspans making them somewhat slow to maneuver. They tend to soar while watching the ground, searching for activity of other scavengers. This habit makes them vulnerable to injury from blade tips approaching from above, often at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour.”
In addition, condors are “intensely social animals.” Where one goes to feed on carrion, others quickly assemble in “huge flocks,” as Clarke shows in photos taken just minutes apart.
In short, “It may turn out to be hard to kill only one California condor by accident.”
Terra-Gen has agreed to install equipment that would detect transmitter signals from condors flying in the vicinity of the project, and to curtail operations accordingly. But not all condors have transmitters, the devices sometimes fall off, and the batteries often fail. The greater the number of condors at risk, the more incentive wind operators will have to look the other way:
Wind turbine operators are in business to sell power. If they’re obliged to cut their output drastically every time a condor flies by, and if condors start flying by more than a few days a year, that cuts into profits, and into investors’ income, and into the creditworthiness of the operator. The temptation to err on the side of threat to condors will grow with the local condor population.
Would the FWS really shirk its duty to protect the condor on behalf of wind developers? This is already happening, according to a Washington Post article, “Obama administration allows wind farms to kill eagles, birds, despite federal laws,” cited by Clarke. An excerpt:
Wind farms in this corner of Wyoming have killed more than four dozen golden eagles since 2009, one of the deadliest places in the country of its kind.
But so far, the companies operating industrial-sized turbines here and elsewhere that are killing eagles and other protected birds have yet to be fined or prosecuted — even though every death is a criminal violation.
The Obama administration has charged oil companies for drowning birds in their waste pits, and power companies for electrocuting birds on power lines.
But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly.
“What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK,” said Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent based in Cody.