Aug 21, 2009

How Much Is a Bird's Life Worth? (Part 1)

ExxonMobil, long considered an uber villain by environmentalists, recently agreed to pay $600,000 in fines. Its crime? Over a five-year period, 85 migratory birds (17 per year) died after landing in Exxon wastewater facilities across five US states.

CNN says the birds died after they ingested or became coated with hydrocarbons. These included a hawk, ducks, owls and other species. None are considered endangered but at least some are classified as "protected."

Exxon's fine works out to $7,059 per bird. In an effort to save the lives of less than two dozen such birds a year the company has apparently already spent $2.5 million covering and draining the bodies of wastewater and "will spend quite a bit more to implement the environmental compliance plan."

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cruden says this case represents "a great win for the environment." Members of the public who left comments on CNN's website appear to agree. Observed one: "Seems like such a small amount of money for loss of animal life. Exxon always seems to get away with careless destruction of wildlife."

A person named Clayton concurred that the fine was too small. Another implied that additional prosecutions were necessary "to stave off the decline in numbers of much of our wildlife."

One wonders then, how Mr. Cruden and his employer, the US Department of Justice, feel about the worldwide push to increase the use of wind power? Because if 17 bird deaths annually are worthy of legal prosecution and multi-million-dollar remediation, it's difficult to imagine how windmill companies are going to stave off bankruptcy.

Bats, after all, aren't mere birds - they're warm-blooded mammals. And it turns out that windmills alter air pressure in a way that causes the lungs of bats to explode. Researchers studying the issue apparently had little difficulty locating 188 dead bats from wind farms located solely in one part of one Canadian province.

According to a press release from the university with which the researchers are associated:

"The majority of bats killed at wind turbines are the migratory bats that roost in trees, including hoary bats, eastern red bats, and silver-haired bats. While little is known about their population sizes...their deaths could have far-reaching consequences. Bats typically live for many years, in some cases reaching ages of 30 or more. Most also have just one or two pups at a time, and not necessarily every year...All three species of migratory bats killed by wind turbines fly at night, eating thousands of insects—including many crop pests—per day as they go. Therefore, bat losses in one area could have very real effects on ecosystems miles away, along the bats' migration routes."
A summary of the bat research paper begins with the observation that the danger windmills pose to birds has been known for decades. A different study suggests that for every three bats that lose their lives due to wind turbines, an additional two birds are killed.

A 2004 California Energy Commission study estimated that as many as 4,720 birds from 40 different species - "including as many as 1,300 protected raptors" - are killed each year by a single wind farm. The Audubon Society says that more than 100 of those birds are golden eagles.

In fairness, this particular California wind farm is said to be unusually deadly, but 4,700 birds a year!

So tell me again why Exxon has been put through the wringer for causing the deaths of 17 birds at the exact same time that wind turbines are massacring them by the thousands?

Either every bird killed by the energy industry should result in a $7k fine - or none should.