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Big Oil pays big bucks for bird kills, while wind farms breathe easy

Ben Anderson

An Associated Press story Tuesday pointed out the double standard in the way the U.S. government treats energy companies when it comes to the inadvertent killing of birds as a result of their operations. In particular, the report notes that wind farms responsible for the killing of federally-protected bird species struck by quick-spinning turbines get a free pass from prosecution, where more traditional energy companies like oil and electric face hefty fines for birds killed by flying into power lines or mired in waste pits.

Estimates of the number of birds killed each year in collisions with wind turbines vary -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2012 that about 440,000 birds are killed annually by turbines, and the AP article cites a recent peer-reviewed study that put the number at 573,000.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, BP was fined $100 million for the damage it caused to bird populations in the area, both migratory and resident. A similar punishment was doled out to Exxon Mobil Corp. in the wake of its 1989 spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska's Prince William Sound. In that incident, an estimated 250,000 sea birds and about 250 eagles were killed, about half of the predicted number killed each year by wind turbine activity.

The AP notes that it can be difficult to nail down the exact number of birds killed each year by wind turbines because companies are not required to report bird kills. That holds true in Alaska as well. Alaska has numerous wind farms, in locations as varied as Kotzebue, Selawik and an installation on Fire Island in the waters off of the state's largest city of Anchorage. 

According to Cathy Rezabeck, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, said that the agency does not track the number of bird strikes in the state.

"The gist of the matter is that we have no mandatory reporting, no database of bird strikes and wind turbines in Alaska," Rezabeck said. "All reports are incidental reports, and are forwarded to our law enforcement folks and checked for possible violations against the Migratory Bird (Treaty) Act," the set of federal regulations governing the killing and use of migratory birds.

Rezabeck said that FWS law enforcement in Alaska had not issued a citation in the past year for any birds killed in encounters with wind turbines.

Just because the reporting has holes doesn't mean some aren't trying to improve the rate of bird mortality caused by wind turbines, though. In the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland sanctuary in Southwest Alaska that's temporarily home to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds each year, a set of unusual Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) work to minimize the potential damage in a bird-heavy area. Those turbines don't have the long blades of the typical generators, but instead feature a more compact, spinning apparatus that is visible to birds even when rotating quickly. The Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge also features some of the unusual turbines.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com