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Do Windmills Eat Birds? 

Foxes Advocate Hen Welfare 

David Case / TomPaine.com 3may01

It's strange: suddenly, some of the most unlikely people are losing sleep over what windmills might be doing to birds.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christy Todd Whitman's green credentials wilted only weeks after taking office. She supports the proposed deep cuts to her own agency's budget, and has backed President George W. Bush's controversial decisions benefiting the coal industry. But in a speech defending fossil fuel exploitation she fretted, "... windmills kill birds because they're in the flyway."

The corporate-funded Washington Legal Foundation, a perennial critic of so-called "environmental radicals," wrote in a recent advertisement in the New York Times, "... how many acres of land must be despoiled to erect enough windmills -- and how many birds must be shredded flying through their giant blades -- to keep California from becoming a third world country?"

The ranks of new bird protectionist also include Jerry Taylor and Steve Slivinski of the Cato Institute -- a right-wing, anti-regulation organization that receives part of its funding from oil companies and which is a virulent foe of the environmental movement. Borrowing a convenient line from the opposition, they've claimed that, "The Sierra Club goes so far as to tag wind power facilities as 'the Cuisinarts of the air.'" The same comment was echoed on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" recently by -- get this -- a spokesperson for the Alaskan oil industry. "You see," says Cato's Taylor, reflecting on the repetition of his message, "our reports get around."

So what's going on here? Has environmentalism suddenly become infectious among the smokestack set?

Doubtful.

For its part, the Sierra Club doesn't appreciate Cato and company carrying its yoke. Especially because the quote is "not true!" as Ann Mesnikoff bellows emphatically and with some exasperation. "Sierra Club strongly supports wind power. It's clean. It's renewable energy. It is a growing part of our energy supply."

The Cato Institute's Taylor says he found the Cuisinart quote in a 1995 book about wind power. That is eons ago in terms of rapidly evolving wind power technology, which backers contend is increasingly bird-friendly. (Imagine searching books from 1995 for a useful tidbit about the Internet.) But the fact that the quote is old hasn't stopped journalists from parroting it: a Nexis search yields dozens of references -- a sign that Cato's reports do, in fact, get around.

Mesnikoff admits that the line was uttered. "It's an old quote, a clever line in a specific fight against a specific [wind] farm in California," says Mesnikoff. It has been taken out of context, she says. "It wasn't the Sierra Club's position on wind power. We support wind farms in the right places -- putting a wind farm in a bird flyway or a raptor hunting grounds is not the right place for it."

"So what?" retorts Taylor. "Comments are always taken out of context. What do they want us to do, reproduce an entire speech?"

Taylor maintains that wind farms are the biggest bird killers in the country. "The most profitable ones are where the wind blows most frequently and the most consistently, which is in the wilderness. That's where birds are," he explains. The Audubon Society has called for a moratorium on windmills, he says. The Audubon Society, however, denies this. "We support wind power as long as the turbines are well-sited," says Perry Plumart, the group's government relations director.

Taylor refers to a Cato study, which includes dubious logic like the following:

"There have been numerous mentions of the 'avian mortality' problem in the wind-power literature (the Sierra Club labeled wind towers 'the Cuisinarts of the air'). An article in the March 29-April 4, 1995, issue of SF Weekly was particularly telling. ..."

The "study" goes on to quote extensively from the article. But, if it were possible to track down the 1995 editors of the SF Weekly, would they agree that their free San Francisco-based weekly newspaper -- which survives in no small part on ads for escort services and local watering holes -- is part of the "wind power literature?"

In fact, though Cato's study is widely quoted, it's hard to find anyone in the bird conservation community who agrees with it.

One high-profile environmentalist admits that birds do occasionally crash into the twirling blades. But, he says (anonymously and carefully, for fear of unleashing another contagious quote), "Do you know how many birds die every day?" They crash into skyscrapers and plate glass windows; they're crushed by trucks; they're sucked into jet engines and gag on smog. Kids with BB guns knock them off. Windmills are a concern, but they don't appear high on anyone's list of avian threats.

The bird experts at the Audubon Society are more concerned about the 10,000 to 20,000 communications towers expected to go up in coming years. "In general, the wind energy industry has substantially reduced bird deaths and has been successful in addressing the problem," Plumart says.

The American Bird Conservancy says that habitat loss (e.g. suburban sprawl) is the biggest threat. But if people want to save birds, the group says, they should rein in the nation's 40 million domestic cats with outdoor privileges, which slaughter hundreds of millions of birds each year. Keep the cats inside, the group advises.

In fact, Cato's report calculates that if every gigawatt in the U.S. came from wind, the turbines would kill 4.4 million birds a year. That's paltry by comparison to Kitty's toll. Still, others dispute Cato's data.

According to the industry group American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), public attention has focused on the Altamont Pass wind farm in California, where unusually high numbers of raptors die, in part due to old technology and unfavorable siting of the turbines. According to some estimates, as many as three dozen golden eagles die there annually. Cato, incidentally, used figures from this wind farm to help calculate its bird-mortality rates. AWEA, which is working with the government to study the impact of windmills, says that studies of other sites indicate that each turbine causes the death of one or two birds per year.

"It would be great if all electricity sources were given the same scrutiny," says Christine Real de Azua, an AWEA spokeswoman. She points out that traditional power sources impact birds as well. For example, mountain-top removal coal mining decimates vast habitat, and toxic emissions from power plants are threatening loons and other wildlife, not to mention the potential impact from fossil-fuel induced climate change.

So why do windmills, and not suburban sprawl, skyscrapers, communications towers, prowling cats, and trigger-happy kids pique the ire of these newfound bird lovers? Why aren't they lobbying for mandatory cat muzzles? Audubon's Plumart calls the rhetoric hyped up. "I think they're being disingenuous. I don't think they're worried about birds at all."

As Jack Cole, a radio talk show host in Florida, points out, when pro-polluter flacks "like the Washington Legal Foundation are worried that windmills will despoil the landscape and kill birds, you know the technology must be promising."

"Nuclear power generates nuclear waste. Coal fired power plants generate acid rain, smog, global warming. Wind is clean and it can and is being used safely for wildlife," says the Sierra Club's Mesnikoff.

Wind power, it turns out, is a threat to the big-energy companies who back Cato: it's cheap (only dirty coal is cheaper); it's easy to roll out in a hurry (it takes a year to do the environmental studies, and about six months for installation); and no one owns the wind -- not ExxonMobil, not OPEC -- so there's no one to haphazardly change the price. Of course, the wind doesn't always blow consistently, and nobody is suggesting that wind can become our sole source of power. It can and should be part of our power mix. Windmills can generate a steadier power supply if the turbines are located offshore or across vast geographic areas. Technicians are now hard at work devising methods to store excess energy generated during periods of strong wind (for example, by using the energy to create hydrogen for fuel cells).

Still, Jerry Taylor is not convinced. "If you want to get rid of fossil fuels it's certainly possible -- but you're going to set us back 200 years economically," he says. It's a good example of his usual straw-man scare tactic: His statement is loaded with the assumption that most environmentalists have proposed immediately ending fossil-fuel use (they haven't), and he completely ignores the job-creation power of new energy technologies (which credible economic research shows are creating lots of new jobs worldwide even as the number of fossil-fuel jobs is shrinking).

So the foxes are advocating hen welfare. How charitable... and what a ruse. The only thing windmills are shredding is the opposition of fossil-fuel apologists like Taylor who, under the guise of concern, aim to keep their patrons in the black and the public in the dark.

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