Clean Power Collateral Damage: Of Birds, Tortoises And The Transition From Fossil Fuels

How many threatened birds and tortoises would you be willing to sacrifice to build a commercial wind farm, or a utility-scale solar array? It's an oversimplified way to frame things, of course, but it highlights the reality that renewable energy has environmental impacts, too.
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FILE - This Sept. 3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise, sitting in the middle of a road at the proposed location of three BrightSource Energy solar-energy generation complexes in the eastern Mojave Desert near Ivanpah, Calif. A federal agency said Friday June 10, 2011 that construction can resume on a massive Southern California solar energy project after wildlife officials determined it will not jeopardize the threatened desert tortoise. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
FILE - This Sept. 3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise, sitting in the middle of a road at the proposed location of three BrightSource Energy solar-energy generation complexes in the eastern Mojave Desert near Ivanpah, Calif. A federal agency said Friday June 10, 2011 that construction can resume on a massive Southern California solar energy project after wildlife officials determined it will not jeopardize the threatened desert tortoise. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Is kickstarting a clean-energy industry and accelerating a movement away from fossil fuels worth the expense of, say, a few desert tortoises or a collection of piping plovers? If so, how many of these threatened species would you be willing to sacrifice to build a commercial wind farm, or a utility-scale solar array?

It's a stark and oversimplified way to frame things, of course, but the exercise helps to highlight the reality that renewable energy has environmental impacts, too. It's a point that was raised with me recently by Eric Glitzenstein, an attorney representing, among other groups, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a determined and well-funded coalition of residents in and around Cape Cod who are opposed to the construction of an offshore wind farm in nearby waters.

Giltzenstein was responding to my recent story on the ongoing effort to build that offshore facility, called Cape Wind, and he argued that over the course of the 12-year conflict, which is usually depicted as a not-in-my-backyard dispute, real impacts to local wildlife have been overlooked.

As many as 100 or more golden eagles fall victim to spinning turbines at California's Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area every year.

According to a recent legal brief filed by Glitzenstein -- part of a larger lawsuit brought on behalf of a coalition that includes the Alliance and an assortment of conservation groups like Public Employees for Environmental Protection -- these wildlife threats have been inadequately considered by federal regulators, who signed-off on the project in 2010.

"While you raised valid questions concerning the length and complexity of the process," Glitzenstein said in an email message, "one of the unfortunate ironies is that, notwithstanding - indeed, perhaps because of - the byzantine nature of the process, important wildlife protection concerns raised by the project have never been meaningfully addressed by the relevant expert agencies."

Cape Wind, of course, spent years undergoing extensive environmental review, first by the Army Corps of Engineers and then again, by dint of new federal energy legislation in 2005, by the Department of the Interior. Some 800 pages of impact analysis was ultimately completed in 2009, and it included input from a battery of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish & Wildlife Service and others. According to those reviewers, the wind farm posed no major threats to local wildlife.

But in their lawsuit, Glitzenstein and his clients argue that construction and operation of the project will, among other things ...

... [kill] migratory birds, including endangered and threatened species, harass federally listed sea turtles, and place the gravely endangered North Atlantic right whale at increased risk of ship strikes - the leading cause of the species' imperilment. In the course of approving the project, defendants contravened the safeguards that Congress established for the affected wildlife.

Whether the relevant federal agencies erred in their analysis remains, obviously, a matter for the courts, but it's worth pointing out that Cape Wind is also supported by virtually all of the major environmental organizations in the United States, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Presumably none of these groups would argue that Cape Wind -- or any major infrastructure project, for that matter -- is without impacts on local wildlife and the nearby environment. But in the case of the Nantucket wind farm, these groups seem to suggest, the trade-offs are reasonable.

Glitzenstein found this somewhat ironic. "All I can say is that many major renewable energy projects raise very difficult questions of balancing, and each group has to make its own call as to how that balance should be struck," he said in a follow-up email. "It seems clear that if the wildlife risks and impacts associated with this project were instead associated with a massive oil and gas drilling operation (e.g., if such a project risked a major oil spill that might kill thousands of migratory birds), there would be strong, uniform opposition from the environmental community."

Whether or not that's a fair characterization is an open question, but environmental tensions surrounding renewable energy projects are, as Glitzenstein suggests, hardly unique to the Nantucket Sound wind farm. A long and sometimes bitter fight over, among other things, tortoises, has relentlessly dogged the Ivanpah solar thermal power project in California's Mojave desert. The massive, 3,500-acre facility will use nearly 200,000 mirrors to focus the sun's rays on centralized towers, generating steam and producing a nominal output of 377 megawatts of electricity -- the largest facility of its kind in the world and enough capacity, developers say, to power some 140,000 homes.

It was known early on that the project site overlapped with the native habitat of the desert tortoise, but as BrightSource Energy, one of the project's developers, began prepping the site for construction, it became clear the number of impacted tortoises was far higher than government biologists had predicted in reviewing and ultimately permitting the project, which is being built on public land.

The solar facilities' developers have since been spending princely sums in an attempt to corral, rehabilitate and ultimately re-locate the tortoises it finds underfoot -- with only modest success, according to The Los Angeles Times last spring:

BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even at that price, the work has met with unforeseen calamity: Animals crushed under vehicle tires, army ants attacking hatchlings in a makeshift nursery and one small tortoise carried off to an eagle nest, its embedded microchip pinging faintly as it receded.

History has shown the tortoise to be a stubborn survivor, withstanding upheavals that caused the grand dinosaur extinction and ice ages that wiped out most living creatures. But unless current recovery efforts begin to gain traction, this threatened species could become collateral damage in the war against fossil fuels.

BrightSource and its partners fired back shortly after that item ran last year, arguing that The Times failed to note that the tortoise has a poor survival rate even left entirely alone, and that "the Ivanpah project owners - NRG, Google and BrightSource Energy - are going to great lengths to ensure minimal impact to the desert tortoise population at and near our project site." This includes, the company noted, caring for as many as 170 juvenile desert tortoises -- including "53 newborn hatchlings."

Biologists working for BrightSource "translocate" desert tortoises away from its massive solar facility.

A regional green group, the Western Watersheds Project, did file a lawsuit in an attempt to block Ivanpah's progress -- citing, among other problems, the failure to properly consider impacts on the tortoise. But in August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by the group to force BrightSource and its partners to halt construction while its lawsuit was pending, and all signs suggest that Ivanpah might well start producing electricity this year.

For all of the friction, and regardless of how successful the developers' ongoing reptile rescue efforts prove in the long term, the fact remains that some tortoises will necessarily be sacrificed in the pursuit of what is, presumably, a higher purpose. So, too, will fish habitats be disturbed if giant turbine towers are ultimately driven into the seabed of Nantucket Sound. And it is virtually certain that some number of piping plovers, roseate terns and other unwitting water birds will fall victim to an unfortunate and summary thunk while trying to navigate Cape Wind's hundreds of giant, spinning turbine blades.

Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation's thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power -- not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate -- some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.

An analysis published in January, for example, estimated that while wind power had killed approximately 20,000 birds in the U.S. in 2009, the combined pollution from fossil fuel plants was responsible for more than 14 million avian deaths. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has put the number of birds killed by wind turbines far higher -- on the order of 400,000 annually, according to its budget justification report for fiscal year 2013.

But then, another 7 million birds are knocked dead by the 84,000 television and radio towers in North America, according to a 2012 study from the University of Southern California. Is that a worthy trade-off?

These are important questions, but Kit Kennedy, an attorney with NRDC, suggested that, at least as it relates to Cape Wind, this sort of grim reckoning is unnecessary. She pointed by way of example to the Massachusetts Audubon Society -- presumably a steadfast friend to birds -- which concluded, based on four years of bird studies from regulators, Cape Wind's developers and its own independent analyses, that the project posed no "ecologically significant" threat to birds of Nantucket Sound.

"By combating climate change, the Cape Wind Project will help to protect the wildlife in the region and around the world," Kennedy said in an email message. "The project will tap into Nantucket Sound's abundant offshore wind resources and provide enough pollution-free and carbon-free power to meet 75 percent of the electricity demand of Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. That's good for the planet, for us humans, and for wildlife."

Kennedy, whose organization joined the Conservation Law Foundation and Mass Audubon in filing an amicus brief in support of Cape Wind and disputing the wildlife endangerment arguments of project opponents, also took issue with Glitzenstein's suggestion that major green groups would be blocking the Nantucket project if it involved coal or oil, rather than wind power.

"This just doesn't hold water," Kennedy said. "NRDC has done groundbreaking work to ensure that renewable energy is 'smart from the start' -- meaning that siting avoids areas that are high conflict in terms of wildlife and ecosystem protection." While NRDC has not sought to derail the Ivanpah solar project, Kennedy noted that the group has, in fact, taken aim at other desert solar projects, going so far as to sue the Department of the Interior over approval of a location in the Mojave that would have unacceptable wildlife implications.

"Cape Wind just does not present the same concerns," she said.

Glitzenstein and his clients, of course, hope to ultimately prove otherwise.

"What is clear is that no one group is the repository of ultimate wisdom on these matters and groups can (and will) disagree in good faith on where the balance should be struck -- which, in the long run, is probably healthy," Glitzenstein said.

The environmental community, he added, must "discern the proper path for promoting renewable energy and curbing greenhouse gas emissions while, at the same time, ensuring that other ecological catastrophes -- such as needlessly decimating bird populations -- are not inadvertently created in the course of doing so."

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