CONVERSE COUNTY, Wyo. — It happens about once a month here, on the barren foothills of one of America’s green-energy boomtowns: A soaring golden eagle slams into a wind farm’s spinning turbine and falls, mangled and lifeless, to the ground.
Killing these iconic birds is not just an irreplaceable loss for a vulnerable species. It’s also a federal crime, a charge that the Obama administration has used to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines.
But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly. Instead, the government is shielding the industry from liability and helping keep the scope of the deaths secret.
Wind power, a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term.
But like the oil industry under President George W. Bush, lobbyists and executives have used their favored status to help steer U.S. energy policy.
The result is a green industry that’s allowed to do not-so-green things. More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Getting precise figures is impossible because many companies aren’t required to disclose how many birds they kill. When companies voluntarily report deaths, the Obama administration in many cases refuses to make the information public, saying it belongs to the energy companies or that revealing it would expose trade secrets or implicate ongoing enforcement investigations.
Nearly all the birds being killed are protected under federal environmental laws, which prosecutors have used to generate tens of millions of dollars in fines and settlements from businesses, including oil and gas companies, over the past five years.
“We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations,” Colorado U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette said in 2009 when announcing Exxon Mobil had pleaded guilty and would pay $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states.
The large death toll at wind farms shows how the renewable energy rush comes with its own environmental consequences.
“It is the rationale that we have to get off of carbon, we have to get off of fossil fuels, that allows them to justify this,” said Tom Dougherty, a long-time environmentalist who worked for nearly 20 years for the National Wildlife Federation in the West, until his retirement in 2008.
The Obama administration has refused to accept that cost when the fossil-fuel industry is to blame. The BP oil company was fined $100 million for killing and harming migratory birds during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants in Wyoming, paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines and at its substations.
“What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK,” said Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent.