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It's Time for Independent Monitoring of Wildlife Kills at Renewable Energy Sites

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You have a right to know what this facility is doing to wildlife. | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Last month, an Oregon-based wind energy company filed suit to block the federal government from releasing information on bird kills at the firm's 13 wind-power sites nationwide. The plaintiff, Portland-based Pacificorp, is asking a U.S. District Court judge in Utah to issue an injunction banning the U.S. Department of the Interior from providing the Associated Press with information on how many birds are being found dead at Pacificorps' wind installations.

In its complaint, Pacificorp claims the information Interior would provide AP as the result of a request by the news agency under the Freedom of Information Act is confidential commercial information." Pacificorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of several wind companies that has objected to AP's coverage of bird deaths at wind energy installations.

If Pacificorp prevails in court, you may essentially lose your right to learn about the environmental impacts of projects funded by your tax dollars on public lands owned by you. Solar companies that do business on public lands will be watching this lawsuit carefully, as will their counterparts in the oil and gas industry. But the suit raises a question that's beginning to be asked by any number of people watching the renewable energy industry: Why do we trust renewable energy companies to report on their own wildlife kills?

We've been reporting on wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities here at Rewire for many months, but for every story we've run, there are a few we haven't been able to.

We've heard anecdotal reports of raptor kills at wind turbine farms observed by passersby but been unable to confirm them.

We've talked to biologists who'd been told that if they found too many dead birds at the solar plant that had hired their employers, they would be looking for work.

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We've seen solar company representatives imply in the press that they'd documented every single bird death at their facilities, despite systematic surveys being done less than once a week over less than a quarter of the project footprint even at the height of the survey period.

And now Pacificorp wants to block the public from learning about the bird death toll of their wind facilities, in perpetuity. The company is asking for a permanent injunction against the release of its bird mortality data.

Pacificorp's main point is that under the terms of its agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bird mortality data was offered up voluntarily to USFWS. If that data is then provided to the public, says Pacificorp in its complaint, then Pacificorp will suffer "irreparable harm."

According to Pacificorp, USFWS giving up that voluntarily supplied information will discourage wind companies from voluntarily complying with the agency's requests for data.

Pacificorp goes so far as to claim its reluctance to share information with the public is in our best interests:

In other words, Pacificorp and other renewable energy firms will be reluctant to share information voluntarily with wildlife law enforcement agencies because that information may eventually go public.

So here's a thought: We make compiling and sharing that data mandatory instead of voluntary.

We're talking about potential violations of a number of laws here, after all. Wind and solar installations routinely kill birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, by the Endangered Species Act, and by a host of other state and local laws.

And yet the renewable energy industry has been treated with kid gloves by regulators compared to the oil and gas industry. We covered part of one possible reason for this recently, in the likely conflict of interest in Interior Department bigwig Steve Black's courting both an energy company lobbyist in the romantic sense, and a job with a wind industry trade group in the metaphorical sense, as he influenced decisions on renewable energy policy on public lands.

Black's alleged improper activities took place in the context of Interior Department directives to subordinate agencies to temper or even omit criticisms of renewable energy projects on public lands. It's no surprise that USFWS's approach to renewable energy violations of wildlife protection laws has been to come up with ways to make the laws less stringent: to make take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act voluntary, for example, or to extend the lifespan of those permits from five to 30 years.

It's begun to seem as though USFWS has become a victim of what the wonks call "regulatory capture," in a way similar in the broadest sense to the Bush-Era Minerals Management Service scandal. Regulatory capture means that an agency's managers have become so throughly identified with the welfare of the industry they're supposed to regulate that the agency is no longer an effective regulator -- it's been "captured" by the companies it's supposed to oversee.

We need to build renewable energy generating capacity, and we need to do so in a way that's transparent, with the actual environmental cost of individual projects a matter of public record both before and after the projects are built. We can't do that if data on wildlife death is hidden, collected incompletely, or never collected at all.

It's time for the public to take control of that data.

Scientists are human: Tell them their jobs are at risk if they do their jobs right and eventually they will stop doing their jobs right, or they'll quit and free up a job for someone with fewer options. But give them an opportunity to do good work without fear of retribution and they will do good work.

We need to take responsibility for monitoring wildlife impacts of renewable energy facilities entirely out of the hands of the people making the money on those facilities.

Large solar and wind facilities on public lands or in sensitive wildlife habitat should be made to pay for environmental monitoring as a cost of doing business. But they shouldn't have any control over the biologists and other scientists doing that monitoring. That's just basic common sense. The way it's set up now is equivalent to trusting drivers to monitor their own speed when careening through school zones and expecting them to report any speed limit violations on a voluntary basis. We don't do that: We use the (allegedly) empirical evidence provided by radar guns to provide correction to violators.

Independent, third-party scientific monitoring would be a radar gun for wildlife violations: not perfect, but a hell of a lot more reliable than expecting repeat scofflaws to write their own citations. That independent review could enable rank and file USFWS staff to do the job they applied for in the first place: protecting wildlife by addressing problems at facilities that hurt wildlife, but with far more relaible data to back them up.

And all that data needs to be made public, so that those of us in the public can make sure the USFWS is doing its job properly.

Otherwise, we'll just get more Pacificorps: companies saying that they're withholding data from the public for our own good.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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