In what appears to be a precedent-setting case for renewable energy projects’ impact on wildlife, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) fined the owner of two wind farms in Wyoming $1 million for killing 14 golden eagles and other federally protected birds.
163 Bird Kills
Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, became the first wind company to be charged under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Enacted in 1918, the law makes it a federal crime to kill any bird among more than 1,000 different species.
Duke Energy Renewable pled guilty to killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens, and sparrows. The deaths took place between 2009 and 2013 at two Duke Renewables wind farms in Converse County, Wyoming. Together, the wind farms have 176 turbines.
In the settlement reached between DOJ and Duke Energy Renewables, the company agreed to the following distribution of its $1 million fine: $400,000 to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, $100,000 to the state of Wyoming, $160,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and $340,000 to a conservation fund in Wyoming for the purchase of land for golden eagle habitat.
Costly Mitigation Measures
Duke Energy Renewables will take several steps to reduce bird kills at the two facilities, including installing radar technology similar to that used by the military to monitor incoming missiles. The radar technology is designed to detect eagles approaching the sites and shut down the turbines in advance of the eagles’ arrival.
The company is also employing field biologists to watch for approaching birds. All told, the measures the company is taking are expected to cost $600,000 a year, which will be paid by electricity consumers.
More Cases in the Pipeline
FWS currently has 18 active investigations of bird kills at wind energy projects around the country. Seven have been referred to the DOJ for prosecution.
DOJ’s action against the wind farms in Wyoming set a new precedent, though it may have limited application. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced on December 6 it will issue permits for wind farm operators to kill eagles for up to 30 years.
For years, oil and gas companies were slapped with stiff fines for inadvertent harm caused to wildlife, while wind and solar projects appeared largely immune from prosecution.
“Expect the cost of the fines imposed on Duke Energy Renewables, together with the expenses incurred through the company’s mitigation measures, to be passed on to ratepayers,” said John Droz, a North Carolina-based physicist and energy expert.
“Like most other wind-related costs, they will be hidden, and not attributable to wind energy’s real costs,” Droz added.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.