From Solyndra, the failed solar company that cost taxpayers over $500 million, to Fisker, the car maker that could cost taxpayers $170 million, the federal government is spending billions of taxpayers' dollars on failing green energy projects. And now a planned wind farm near Tehachapi is shining a light on the environmental costs of such subsidies.
In May, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service gave San Diego wind power company Terra-Gen an exemption from prosecution if a turbine on its proposed wind farm 100 miles north of Los Angeles accidentally kills a California condor, one of the rarest species in America.
By exempting Terra-Gen from liability if its wind turbines kill a condor, the federal government has given the company a break that, based on how it implements the Endangered Species Act, it would likely never give to oil or coal companies.
It's hard to overstate the symbolic importance of the condor to the federal government and environmental groups. The condor is one of the "poster species" of efforts to protect and save endangered species. By the 1970s, biologists realized that the condor was headed for extinction in the wild. So, in 1982, with the blessing and help of the federal government, zoos began a captive breeding program, and in 1987 the last wild condor was taken into captivity. The program has been successful. This year the condor population is up to around 400, with more than half of them in the wild.
However, soon after releases into the wild began it became apparent that condors could not survive without human-supplied carrion and that large numbers of condors suffered lead poisoning from bullets ingested from carcasses of sport-hunted animals. And now a new threat to has emerged in the form of wind turbines, which kill at least 600,000 birds annually. The turbines are a particular hazard to large, soaring birds, like condors, because they frequent the same windy ridgelines and hillsides that are also good sites for turbines.
One might have expected most of the big environmental groups to be up in arms about the government's condor exemption. After all, they rarely miss an opportunity to oppose the construction of roads, power plants or even new school buildings that pose any potential threat to endangered species. Yet in the case of wind turbines, many environmentalists are exhibiting willingness to compromise.
"We want to see wind prevail, but we also want to see it done smartly [when it comes to the condor,]" Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife told National Public Radio's Marketplace in an unusually frank admission of her group's priorities.
Terra-Gen's spokesman on condor habitat, Greg Wetstone, previously led the Natural Resources Defense Council's government affairs efforts. In 2001 Wetstone opposed the nomination of Gale Norton as Interior Secretary because he said "she will not enforce laws with which she disagrees," such as the Endangered Species Act. Now, however, Wetstone thinks the Interior Department shouldn't enforce the Endangered Species Act for his company's proposed wind farm.
The threat to the condor from wind turbines and the exemption granted to Terra-Gen's planned wind farm underscores some of the problems with government picking winners in the marketplace. In its push for wind power, the government is providing preferential treatment and ignoring very real environmental costs. Many experts believe it's only a matter of time before a wind turbine kills a condor. If or when that happens, the environmental costs of wind power may finally become widespread knowledge and spur policy changes on the special treatment government gives to "green" companies.
Brian Seasholes is a research fellow at the Reason Foundation. This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.