Americans, Dutch See Tradeoff Between Climate and Wildlife

Green energy can kill birds and toads.

Netherlands wind turbines
Wind turbines in the dunes of Holland (Vattenfall)

Should we sacrifice wildlife to fight climate change? Whether it’s toads being uprooted by geothermal plants or birds being killed by wind turbines, the question vexes politicians in America and the Netherlands.

So far, the Americans have been more likely to answer “no”.

West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has angered many in his Democratic Party with a plan to speed up energy permits. He would set a two-year target for environmental reviews and a 150-day statute of limitations on court challenges. (The average review takes four-and-a-half years, costs $4.2 million and is 600 pages long. I’ve argued the reforms don’t go far enough, and the two-year “target” should be made into a deadline.)

In the Netherlands, the left-liberal climate and energy minister, Rob Jetten, has licensed the construction of 1,700 wind turbines in the North Sea, which would increase Dutch offshore energy generation by a factor of eight. Environmentalists warn the impact of this expansion on birds and marine life is understudied.

Toads put geothermal plant on hold

Start in Dixie Valley, Nevada, some 180 kilometers east of the state capital Reno. The Israeli company Ormat plans to build a geothermal plant there.

Ormat has several geothermal plants in the Western United States, which generate clean energy by tapping hot water from the ground. Conservationists worry this one will endanger a speckled toad that lives only in the wetlands above the Dixie Valley springs.

They have been joined in a lawsuit by a Native American tribe, for whom the hot springs are sacred.

A federal court ruled for Ormat in August, but the company has agreed to halt construction until the end of the year pending a joint investigation by the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service to see if and how the toads can be saved.

Cape Wind’s two-decade ordeal

Out-of-sight wind farms face less opposition from locals, but environmentalists can be persistent.

Take Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm in the Nantucket Sound of Massachusetts. Its 130 turbines could have powered 200,000 homes.

The plan was approved by the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board in 2005, the state secretary of energy in 2007, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Federal Aviation Administration in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, and then halted by an appeals court in 2016, which agreed with opponents the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had not obtained sufficient site-specific data as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The developer gave up in 2017.

Nationwide, twenty times as much offshore wind power is held up in permitting than in operation or under construction.

Not much Biden can do

President Joe Biden has fast-tracked permits for projects off the Atlantic Coast and offered $3 billion in federal loan guarantees to offshore wind and port upgrades that support wind turbine construction.

Which can’t hurt, but slow federal regulators are the least of the energy companies’ worries. Nor do many green-energy projects require subsidies anymore. Federal conservation laws from the 1960s and 70s, which allow environmentalists to challenge and delay any project, are the real headache.

Manchin’s 150-day statute of limitations should help speed things up. But that won’t change the underlying rules, which are the same for renewables and fossil fuels.

Wind turbines kill birds

It’s not that conservationists are unreasonable. Consider the threat of wind power to birds. Two studies in 2013 estimated that between 234,000 and 573,000 birds were killed in the United States by wind turbines. Wind capacity has since doubled.

Far more birds die in collisions with buildings, possibly as many as one billion per year. 114 million cats might kill another 1.3 to four billion birds annually. (That estimate is debated.)

But those fatalities tend to be hummingbirds, sparrows and warblers, small birds that are not endangered. Wind turbines also kill tens of thousands of eagles, hawks and falcons every year.

Builders have got better at avoiding such deaths, for example by studying the flight patterns of large birds and not building wind farms in their way to installing sensors that detect hunting birds and shut down turbines when they approach to something as simple as painting one out of three blades black, so birds can spot them more easily. Missouri switches off its largest wind farm every night to avoid collisions.

Dutch conservationists are worried

Similar precautions would be taken in the North Sea, where the Dutch plan to build 1,700 wind turbines in addition to the 500 that are there. On windy days, the 2,200 turbines could generate enough electricity to power 75 percent of the country.

Conservationists I interviewed for a story in Wynia’s Week told me they’re worried the new wind farms will not only put gannets and gulls at risk, but sharks and rays as well.

We just don’t know what the cumulative effect of so many wind farms built in such close proximity will be, a representative of the Foundation for the North Sea said.

A spokesperson for Bird Protection, a nonprofit, urged the government to measure, with cameras and sensors, how many birds are felled by turbine blades. The best figures they have are estimates.

Climate change is more important

The government is funding such research, but Jetten, the minister, cautioned parliament:

In a world marked by climate change, [conservation] targets at the level of individual species cannot be the only starting point.

He would consider the total “impact of human activity” on the North Sea: everything from (over)fishing to rising sea levels caused by global warming.

It’s a roundabout way of saying the Dutch government is prioritizing climate change over birds.