Feds Investigate Arizona Wind Farm for Killing Protected Species

Published March 21, 2018

In the latest clash between renewable energy companies and protectors of wildlife, federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation of a southern Arizona wind farm for the deaths of an endangered bat and a federally protected golden eagle.

Investigators from the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division are looking into the death of an endangered lesser long-nosed bat, among 2,606 other bats reportedly killed at the Red Horse Wind 2 facility near Wilcox, Arizona during its first year of operation, July 2015 t July 2016. SWCA Environmental Consultants, a firm hired by Red Horse to monitor the facility’s environmental compliance, reported the wind turbines killed additional lesser long-nosed bats in 2017.

Research also indicates Red Horse Wind 2, currently the only wind farm operating in southern Arizona, is also responsible for the deaths of at least 190 birds, including a golden eagle, during the same period. The facility consists of 15 450-foot-tall turbines.

Wind Energy vs. Protected Species

The lesser long-nosed bat is listed as endangered under the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The bat is a pollinator of the giant saguaro cactus, the state flower of Arizona and a prominent ecological feature of the Sonoran Desert. The bat’s numbers have rebounded in recent years, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees the ESA, is considering delisting the species.

Golden eagles are not listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, instead protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (1940). Data show tens of thousands of birds and bats, including many protected raptors, have been killed by wind farms’ spinning rotors as these facilities have proliferated in the United States in recent years.

In December 2016, a few weeks before the Obama administration left office, FWS proposed issuing permits to allow wind farm operators to kill a negotiated number of golden eagles without penalty as long as companies took steps to minimize the losses. If issued, the permits would last 30 years, six times as long as the current five-year allowances.

Steps Not Taken

Red Horse officials decided not to seek federal permits to kill a specified number of eagles when they applied to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors for a permit to build the facility in 2013. The company also chose not to submit a draft habitat conservation plan (HCP) to FWS. If approved, the plan would have provided protection against prosecution for the accidental killing, or “taking,” of endangered species, including bats.

The company has now reversed course and applied for a golden eagle take permit and submitted to FWS a draft HCP for the bat.

Plans for Growth

As the Justice Department proceeds with its investigation, Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the utility served by Red Horse Wind 2, has announced plans to increase its use of renewable energy.

Red Horse supplies 30 megawatts of electricity to TEP, enough to power approximately 8,300 homes when the wind is right. The wind facility is part of a larger complex that includes solar panels as well, producing an additional 55 megawatts for TEP.

Despite the problems facing Red Horse, TEP has set a goal of deriving 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, double the state’s renewable energy mandate of 15 percent by 2025.

‘No Redeeming Qualities’

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., science director at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says there is no justification for TEP expanding its use of wind power.

“Wind energy has no redeeming qualities whatever,” Lehr said. “It does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, because the mining of thousands of tons of materials used in the construction of wind turbines yields far more carbon dioxide emissions than a comparable coal-fired power plant.

“And despite receiving huge government subsidies, the electricity from wind farms costs the public three times more than conventional energy,” said Lehr. “We are also learning wind farms endanger the health of humans and wildlife living within 1,500 feet of the turbines because of the devices’ low, thumping noise and vibration.”

‘They Butcher Airborne Wildlife’

Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research, says it is not clear wind farms are better than other sources of electric power, from an environmental perspective.

“This Arizona wind facility case highlights the fact the environmental argument for wind energy is far from convincing,” said McGillis. “As with solar energy, wind facilities have direct harmful effects on the natural world that need to be taken into account.

“Wind and solar energy hardware can contaminate land with toxic waste, and they butcher airborne wildlife, as Arizona’s Red Horse wind facility and California’s Ivanpah solar project show,” McGillis said. “What’s more, wind and solar require far more land to produce a unit of energy than concentrated, conventional sources of energy.”

Lehr says he eagerly awaits the day when government will finally stop pushing wind power.

“Government bureaucrats, beholden to environmental zealots and wind farm lobbyists, have looked the other way as wind turbines destroyed thousands of wonderful animals and sickened people,” said Lehr. “I devoutly hope this federal investigation will be the beginning of the end of government support for wind, which is a travesty of justice, the economy, and our environment.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.