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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

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