Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Eco-Myth of Wind Turbines as Bird Killers

Yes, those gigantic rotors in passes and on hillsides–where the winds blow steadily–do kill birds, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, about 33,000 annually. Why do I call it a myth, then? Because that number pales in comparison to the millions of migratory birds that die from window strikes  (between 97 and 976 million — it’s hard to know exactly; Fish & Wildlife is estimating). Or the 4 to 5 million (possibly even 40 to 50 million) that collide with communication towers each year. Then there are non-collision causes, such as electrocutions (tens of thousands), pesticide deaths (72 million),  and cat kills, which may run into the hundreds of millions annually. But that doesn’t stop conservatives and NIMBY opponents of wind-energy projects  from  scapegoating “killer turbines.”  Robert Bryce, in a column in the Wall Street Journal (summarized in The Week on March 23), accused the Obama administration of a double standard by ignoring  wind farms’ violations of wildlife protection laws while charging oil, gas, and electricity producers with breaking these same laws. In effect, as The Week puts it, under the sensationalist headline  “The Deadly Threat from Wind Energy,” “the  industry has a license to kill.” Bryce’s focus was recent news that even environmental groups are suing to stop some wind projects that endanger nearby bird populations, and the widely publicized estimates that nearly 10,000 birds, some of them protected species, fly into the turbines at Altamont Pass in California.

Now to why I call this an eco-myth: First, that’s the term used by John Laumer on Treehugger for the phenomenon  of attacking the skyscraping rotors for being killers without comparing their mortality numbers with the millions or billions of birds dying from other threats. However, he also takes pains to show that the industry should improve the siting of wind farms and points to a new generation of turbines that promise to reduce the number of bird deaths (he cites the National Wind Coordinating Committee figure of 2.19 bird deaths per turbine per year). Second, the digest of Bryce’s column, in simplifying a complex story based on reporting, links environmentalists’ concern with climate change to a supposed inattention to wildlife harmed by wind energy, and thus overstates the charges Bryce is making.  Whereas a former Naderite who worked for Public Citizen is the source of the analogy between whining about inattention to climate change and breaking wildlife protection laws, The Week makes it sound like Bryce is adding to the myth of wind energy’s effect on birds in order to discredit a promising alternative energy source:

For years, its [the green movement’s] members have complained that too few Americans were paying attention to the science of climate change. But they’ve ignored widespread evidence that their most beloved form of clean energy is devastating wild bird populations. To save the environment, it seems, you first have to wreck it.

The problem with this analogy is that it’s false; bird populations are not being devastated by wind farms. Again, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service, they are threatened by a variety of human activities, including not just the ones mentioned above but “loss and/or degradation of habitat due to human development and disturbance.” According to the website “How Stuff Works,” wind turbines cause only “about 1/10 of a percent of all ‘unnatural’ bird deaths in the US each year.” So why the hue and cry about killer turbines? A table showing the relative (man-made) causes of bird mortality at How Stuff Works shows that this is an eco-myth, reinforced by This Week much more than Bryce in the WSJ. Windmills as bird-o-matics? Not compared to cars and cats, transmission towers and brightly lit windows–not even remotely.

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Letters to the Editor

Sierra Club Hawai‘i’s Capitol Watch asked us not only to write testimony in support of the bag bill under consideration at the legislature but to consider writing a letter to the editor of the Star-Advertiser. It’s been on the receiving end of considerable media attention and the team wants to make sure positive responses overwhelm any negative ones. I was inspired by a brief but eloquent letter in the Honolulu Weekly by Diana Sellner, entitled “Protect our ‘aina”:
The time is now to pass plastic and paper bag legislation on Oahu. Plastic and paper bags are not only a nuisance but an eyesore. The bags are so light, they are easily swept up by the wind and blown all over the city, into our streets, parks, streams and onto our beaches.
      “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina I ka pono.” We need to preserve our precious ‘aina, and get rid of these bags!

Mine is somewhat longer, as I tried to suggest that in a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits would predominate:
We need SB 2511, which levies a 10-cent fee on plastic and paper bags, to become law.
       The benefits? Less litter, which looks bad and costs taxpayers to clean up. Fewer plastic bags fouling streams and ditches, causing backup and flooding. Fewer bags to entangle marine animals. Money saved by retailers because people won’t switch to paper bags, which cost more to produce and use up more resources.
       The costs? Produce bags aren’t affected, so you can clean up after your pet for free. You don’t have to pay–you can bring your own, as you do at Costco, and as we used to do before plastic bags were the norm. If you want a few to line your kitchen waste can, the fee is affordable. Besides, the fees will go toward restoring and protecting our valuable watersheds.
        Sounds like a win-win for everyone but the bag manufacturers, who fight throwaway-bag bills everywhere they are proposed.
It’s easy to send a letter to the paper. Email directly or fill out a form online so that you don’t forget to give your name and a daytime telephone number.

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How to get a throwaway bag bill passed (we hope)

How to get a throwaway bag bill passed (we hope)

Four hundred plastic bags on the lawn at the Hawai’i State Capitol got lawmakers’ attention–will the legislature pass the first statewide bill to “bag the bag”? Click on the photo to read the story of the bag bill.