Should taxpayer dollars be used to help the wind industry break federal wildlife laws?
Even as our federal government has "sequestered" federal funds and been forced to shutter national parks during contentious government shutdowns, we taxpayers have been regularly tapped, year after year, by large corporate wind companies to provide them with tax credits they demand in order to make a profit of their ventures.
Taxpayers may not be aware that they have funded for several years - through the federal government's Production Tax Credit (PTC) - a public subsidy that can create a perverse incentive to put wind turbines in areas that produce little electricity but would have a devastating impact on migratory birds.
As presently configured, the PTC provides 2.3 cents per kilowatt generated, largely to wind energy companies. Poorly sited wind energy development kills significant numbers of birds and bats and alters sensitive wildlife habitat. At the current estimated mortality rate, the wind industry is killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats per year and is expected to kill well over one million per year as projects are built to reach the federal goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2030.
While these numbers represent a relatively small percentage of the total number of birds and bats estimated to reside in or breed in North America, many of the species being killed are already declining for other reasons, and this mortality can exacerbate these declines. In fact, the North American Breeding Bird Survey shows that between 1966 and 2010, 40 percent of neotropical migratory birds (55 of 137 species assessed) had significant negative population trends. The mortality due to wind turbines is just one more factor contributing to the cumulative impact of humans on wild bird and bat populations. In addition, many species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Killing them is a violation of federal law punishable by significant fines.
We all want clean, renewable energy, but wind power cannot be considered "green" if it is unnecessarily killing large numbers of birds and bats. However, we truly can have it both ways. Making wind power a win-win proposition for conservation-minded taxpayers is not overly complicated. Two key actions need to be taken.
The first is that "no-go" zones need to be established for the industry in the most sensitive locations where the toll on birds simply outweighs the benefits of wind development. American Bird Conservancy has already developed maps showing those areas. What is lacking thus far is the political will to draw a few protective lines in the sand around the most important places.
The second is that the voluntary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) permitting guidelines, by which the wind industry is currently guided, need to be made mandatory. Since the Energy Policy Act of 1992 established the PTC, the federal government has doled out billions of dollars and hoped that the for-profit wind industry would voluntarily do the right things to minimize impacts to birds and bats. Every law such as those for stop signs and bank regulation work because they are mandatory and backed by enforcement.
This has important implications for the PTC. The commercial wind industry should not have a free pass to kill large numbers of our native birds and bats with help from public-assistance dollars. Without improved regulation, irresponsible wind energy developers also have an unfair advantage in the marketplace when compared with those that act responsibly by implementing mitigation measures and avoiding sensitive areas. Better regulation will level the playing field, reduce the probability of bad publicity and lawsuits, and save money in the long term. It is, in fact, good business.
Protecting birds and bats is much more than a luxury. Birds are a massive economic and job generator for the United States. According to the latest national survey by FWS, 90 million people - 38 percent of all Americans 16 years and older - participated in wildlife-related recreation in 2011 and spent $145 billion dollars in the process. This spending supports thousands of jobs in industries and businesses connected to fishing, hunting, and the observance of wildlife. However, two areas where the birdwatching market is booming - south Texas and the Great Lakes area - are already the targets of major wind development.
In addition to their inherent beauty and cultural and scientific importance, birds and bats also have an incalculable value by maintaining the ecosystems on which humans depend. For example, birds and bats eat billions of insects each year that left unchecked could decimate our crops, damage our forests, or lead to more use of troubling pesticides. In one study alone, birds were found to eat up to 98 percent of codling moth larvae, a major pest of apple trees in orchards. In forests, the value of insect control by birds has been estimated to be as much as $5,000 per year per square mile.
Birds also play an important role as pollinators, providing a fundamental service to agricultural production that cannot be easily replaced. Bats are equally valuable. In one eight-county region of Texas, Brazilian free-tailed bats save local farmers an estimated $740,000 annually in crop damage and pesticide costs by feeding on corn earworm and cotton bollworm.
Unfortunately, in the case of wind energy, rapid development has gotten way out ahead of the science and regulatory framework. Setting reasonable regulatory sideboards for the industry and putting key, sensitive areas off limits are two principles that should be non-negotiable as renewal of the PTC is considered. It harkens back to an old standard in business dealings to which most of us have grown accustomed. It is called quid pro quo.
Dr. George Fenwick is president of the American Bird Conservancy.