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October 16, 2013

‘Cuisinarts of the Sky’ Continue to Dodge Environmental Laws

October 16, 2013
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Wind turbines injure, maim, and kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year in violation of federal law—more than 573,000 last year alone. And yet, inexplicably, the federal government does almost nothing about these deaths.

Over the last five years, wind energy companies killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles, iconic American symbols that grace our presidential seal. Earlier in the year, federal wildlife officials even took the unprecedented step of giving a wind facility near Los Angeles the right to kill a California condor, one of the most endangered bird species in the world. Given their propensity to cut birds down, some environmentalists have called wind turbines the “cuisinarts of the sky.”

By killing protected birds, the wind industry is clearly breaking the law. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits anyone from hunting, capturing, or killing any migratory birds without permission from the federal government. Similarly, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prevents anyone without a permit from killing or injuring (referred to in the law as “taking”) a bald or golden eagle.

Despite the wind industry’s flagrant disregard for federal law, the Obama administration has never indicted a single wind energy company for illegal bird deaths, while other energy companies are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Continental Resources for the death of a single Say’s Phoebe—a species that was never endangered—which landed in one of its oil pits.

Big Wind: A Lobbying Force for Exemptions and Subsidies

How does the wind industry get away with it? The short answer: good lobbyists and a sympathetic administration that cares more about continuing subsidies than protecting birds.

According to lobbying disclosures, in 2011, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) lobbied Congress, the White House, and the Interior Department on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Draft Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance, as well as other “issues relating to golden eagles.”

AWEA employed 39 lobbyists that year. One of AWEA’s bird lobbyists, Aaron Severn, worked for former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who chaired the Senate Budget Committee from 2007 to 2013. Conrad also served on the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure.

Another AWEA lobbyist, Chris Chwastyk, was chief of staff to former Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). Before losing his seat in the 2010 election, Edwards served on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, which is responsible for funding parts of the Interior Department.

Joining Severn and Chwastyk in lobbying on “issues relating to golden eagles” is AWEA Senior Federal Regulatory Affairs Director Tom Vinson. Before coming to AWEA, Vinson worked for Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who succeeded Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) earlier this year as the Senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who serves on a powerful Senate appropriations panel dealing with energy development.

Around the same time AWEA was lobbying on “issues relating to golden eagles,” the American Bird Conservancy was pushing to prevent the wind industry from acquiring licenses to kill even more birds. At the time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was soliciting public comment for a proposed rule to allow wind energy companies to apply for 30-year “incidental take” permits, a dramatic increase from the five-year permits the government began issuing in 2009.

In a letter to Interior, the American Bird Conservancy decried the “private, closed-to-the-public meetings” held between the administration and several environmental and conservation groups, including AWEA, about the proposed changes. According to AWEA’s public comment submitted to Interior, extending the duration of bird take permits was of “paramount importance” to the wind industry. Businesses like certainty, and being certain that one can kill birds for 30 years is apparently superior to applying every 5 years.

This pattern of lobbying is nothing new for AWEA. In 2012, AWEA admitted to spending more than $2.4 million to protect the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which was set to expire at the end of the year. Congress extended the PTC for one year as part of the must-pass deal to avert the fiscal cliff. With the PTC set to lapse at the end of 2013, AWEA is fighting for another eleventh-hour extension.

For all of AWEA’s lobbying, wind accounted for just 1.4 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2012 and only 3.5 percent of America’s electricity generation. In the absence of a product that creates value for society, AWEA is left fighting for government subsidies, mandates and special protections against violations of federal law. They may only have a small portion of the U.S. energy market, but government policies make up 100 percent of their business model.

Conclusion

The federal government allows the wind industry to kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year with impunity. That is a testament to AWEA’s vigorous lobbying and a sympathetic administration that cares more about continuing decades of massive subsidies than reducing illegal bird deaths. Robert Bryce said it best: “It’s bad enough that this so-called green industry wants to continue killing eagles with impunity. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing the slaughter.”

IER Policy Associates Travis Fisher and Alex Fitzsimmons authored this post. 

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