Birds in Balance: The Environmental Costs of 'Green' Energy

Our new series on sustainable business wonders what to do when your wind farm goes to the birds.

In our new series on sustainable business, Erica Grieder explores how businesses are responding to consumers, governments, and markets to make their practices and their products more sustainable.

Hardly a week goes by without the American Bird Conservancy sending me a press release about birds being killed at wind farms, a problem in the pursuit of clean energy. Yet the biggest bird mortality event of the past two years was the oil spill that resulted from the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon: More than 6,000 dead birds were recovered. So when does the environmental drawback of bird mortality trump a wind farm’s benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

During lunch at the Governor's Energy Conference in Oklahoma earlier this month, I took a seat next to Matt Mattioda, a biologist from the state's department of wildlife conservation and asked what the big animal issues are these days. "Prairie chickens," he said.

The lesser prairie chicken is a small grouse that ranges in the near West—northwestern Oklahoma and Texas, plus New Mexico and Colorado. When mating, the male prairie chicken goes to the top of a hill and fluffs up his feathers for the hens to admire. But if there's a tall structure in the area—say, a drilling platform or a wind turbine—the hens get frightened: Raptors, like hawks and falcons, sit on trees, and they eat prairie chickens. And fear increases the risk of what’s called fence mortality: Being prairie chickens, they don't fly very high, and Oklahoma has a lot of fences.

I had begun to feel very concerned about the lesser prairie chicken. But as Mattioda explained the steps that his office is taking to protect the bird, it occurred to me that many people are skeptical of these projects that lavish millions of scarce public dollars on rare birds, salamanders, owls, and beetles. Just a few weeks earlier, in Fort Worth, I met a woman who was indignant that efforts to build transmission lines to west Texas had been delayed to protect a lizard. (I think she was referring to the dune sagebrush lizard, which is, like the lesser prairie chicken, not technically endangered but considered vulnerable.)

It is easy to make these things sound silly. Americans should be proud of the Endangered Species Act; it enshrines an important national value in law. At the same time, the argument that human needs trump animal concerns is credible in some cases, if not all—particularly because there are some cases where the human activity under dispute has positive environmental externalities of its own that force businesses to choose between between protecting threatened animals and creating clean energy.

This leads to a more general question about how we balance conflicting environmental concerns. Plastic bags are seldom recycled, but paper bags are made from trees. Nuclear power has a low emissions profile, but one of its byproducts is radioactive waste. If the resurgence of natural gas enables a faster transition away from coal, that will make our energy system more sustainable; coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. But the resurgence of natural gas rests on companies’ ability to extract gas from underground shale formations by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process with serious environmental consequences. These questions are only more challenging when we add human costs to the equation. Restricting the use of pesticides may constrain crop yields; in some areas, habitat protection may hamper job creation.

Under most accounts, balancing competing green goals looks like an optimization problem: The goal is to maximize some things while reducing others. But the preferred course of action will vary based on the relative weights assigned to the various factors, and that, in turn, depends on context and preferences.

In drought-stricken Texas, fracking (which uses large amounts of freshwater) is a bit more troubling than it is in Britain; and in densely populated Britain, wind turbines may elicit more opposition than in the wide open spaces of west Texas. And while people may get annoyed when environmentalists try to block a project because a special salamander lives on the site, the Endangered Species Act is there to force us to recognize conservation as a goal

Laws may even have the effect of spurring anticipatory stewardship. One of the reasons Oklahoma is spending money to protect the prairie chicken is to prevent it from making the list of endangered species; if it does, the burden of compliance and habitat protection will make economic development projects in parts of the state more expensive. That would be an undesirable outcome for both business and the birds.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Teo

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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The Planet
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

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via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

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