We Are Massacring Birds to Slow Climate Change. It's Got to Stop | Opinion

The world's biggest producer of renewable energy, the Florida-based NextEra Energy, has killed at least 150 Bald and Golden Eagles at its wind projects in eight different states since 2012. ESI Energy Inc, a wholly owned subsidiary of NextEra, pled guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) last week and was sentenced to probation and $8 million in fines and restitution; it must also implement a plan to protect eagles which could cost another $27 million.

The Department of Justice's enforcement of the MBTA should be welcome news to birdwatchers and citizens alike. But there's a larger lesson here: American taxpayers should not be subsidizing an industry that has shown what the DOJ calls "blatant disregard" for federal wildlife laws. It's especially relevant right now; the prosecution of the company is coming to light at the same time that the wind industry is lobbying to extend, yet again, the federal production tax credit, which expired at the beginning of this year. The PTC, which was supposed to be a temporary subsidy, has been extended 13 times and is now the single most-expensive energy-related provision in the tax code.

The Justice Department's April 5 press release on the agreement with the company reads like an indictment: It says that NextEra repeatedly ignored warnings from federal authorities that its proposed wind projects would kill eagles. Despite the warnings, the company went ahead with the projects.

Birds and windturbines
Birds fly past wind turbines near Husum, northern Germany, on September 20, 2010. The Wind Energy 2010 fair is running in the northern city from September 21 to 25, 2010. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

As the DOJ explains in its press release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to ESI in March 2019 warning that the company's proposed wind project in Wyoming, known as Cedar Springs I and II, "could result in the collision mortality of 44 golden eagles and 23 bald eagles over the first five years of operation," and that "because of the unusually high number of occupied golden eagle nests, the proposed wind facilities" should not be built.

But the warning fell on deaf ears. (A photo of the Cedar Springs facility is featured prominently in NextEra's latest ESG report.) In September 2019, the agency "sent additional letters" to the company "noting that the defendant's parent company had documented that the project was anticipated to kill eagles" and recommended that the facilities apply for an "eagle take permit" from the Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow the company to kill a small number of eagles if certain conditions are met. But according to the DOJ, the company never applied for the permits, thanks to "an admitted nationwide posture and alleged corporate policy."

The DOJ also says the company rushed to build the Wyoming wind project to meet "deadlines for particular tax credits for renewable energy." In other words, NextEra and CSI didn't get federal permits because they were racing to collect even more federal subsidies.

NextEra "received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax credits for generating electricity from wind power at facilities that it operated, knowing that multiple eagles would be killed and wounded without legal authorization, and without, in most instances, paying restitution or compensatory mitigation," per the DOJ.

150 dead eagles would be crime enough. But the actual number of eagles and other birds that are being killed by the wind industry every year is far higher. The DOJ's prosecution only focuses on NextEra's operations in eight states and it only counts the bird carcasses that have been found and determined to have been killed by turbines. That tally doesn't include the tens of thousands of turbines operated by other companies.

Furthermore, biologists don't search the areas around wind turbines every day, and many of the birds killed by turbines are carried away by scavengers.

Wind turbines are also taking a deadly toll on bats, which are important pollinators and insectivores. A 2020 study by biologist K. Shawn Smallwood estimated turbines are killing some 2.2 million bats in the U.S. per year.

On April 5, the company issued a press release quoting NextEra President and CEO Rebecca Kujawa, who said, "We disagree with the government's underlying enforcement policy, which under most circumstances makes building and operating a wind farm into which certain birds may accidentally fly a violation of the MBTA—even when the wind farm was developed and sited in a way that sought to avoid avian wildlife collisions."

But as the DOJ noted, the company was repeatedly warned that its Wyoming wind project would kill eagles.

Kujawa also said the company has "never sited a wind turbine knowing an eagle would fly into it nor have we taken any action in disregard of federal law." Again, that claim directly contradicts what the DOJ said in its press release.

Mike Parr, the president of the American Bird Conservancy, was one of the only environmental leaders in the country to condemn NextEra and its claims. In a statement, Parr said, "the company seems to want to blame the laws and the birds for its violations. Blaming the birds is like directing cars to drive on the sidewalk and then blaming pedestrians for being run over. It is well-known that if you put turbines in eagle habitat, there will be fatalities."

Renewable energy promoters never tire of claiming that wind and solar are cheaper than conventional forms of electricity generation. But it is abundantly clear that wind turbines are exacting a heavy toll on our wildlife. I've been reporting on the MBTA since 1990 and on the wind sector and bird kills for over a decade. It's beyond dispute that more wind turbines mean more of our eagles, birds, and bats will be killed.

Killing our most iconic birds in the hope that wind turbines will slow climate change is nonsense on stilts. The prosecution of NextEra should mark a turning point in American energy policy. It's time to end our infatuation with landscape- and wildlife-destroying wind turbines. It's time to stop subsidizing the slaughter of our wildlife.

Robert Bryce is the host of the Power Hungry Podcast, executive producer of the documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, and the author of six books, including most recently, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations. Follow him on Twitter: @pwrhungry.

The views in this article are the writer's own.