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Washington Governor supports huge wind project while admitting there may be “significant impacts” to hawks



Note: This article was originally published by Washington Policy Center. It is reposted with permission.


“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana


Advocates of aggressive action to reduce CO2 emissions argue that it is necessary to protect the environment and wildlife from the impacts of climate change.


Ironically, there are several clean energy projects that may end up doing more harm to wildlife than the climate impacts they are designed to avoid. In California, centuries-old Joshua trees are being destroyed in favor of a 2,300-acre solar energy project.


A similar situation is playing out in Washington state as Governor Jay Inslee is pushing to build the massive Horse Heaven wind farm in Eastern Washington that would harm the habitat of the endangered ferruginous hawk.


In a letter to the state’s energy sighting board known as EFSEC, the governor made it clear that building more wind power trumps virtually all other considerations. “Washington faces the stark reality that without a rapid buildout of new clean energy generation and transmission, the dependability of our electricity grid is at risk,” he wrote. He went on to cite RCW 80.50.010, writing that, “It is the policy of the state of Washington to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by recognizing the need for clean energy…”


That single focus on building more wind turbines caused the governor to set aside concerns about environmental harm, community complaints, and concerns raised by the Yakama Tribe. While the governor’s letter makes minimal efforts to acknowledge these problems, ultimately, they are dismissed.


The governor’s decision to downplay the risks from the wind turbines to the ferruginous hawk stands in contrast to his approach to dealing with Washington’s growing grey wolf population and the Snake River dams.


The governor’s letter is a good example of how subjective political judgments, not science or objective assessment, drive so much of our environmental policy. It also demonstrates how the state’s needlessly aggressive and restrictive energy policy is imposing big economic and environmental tradeoffs on communities.


Turbines kill hawks (literally and figuratively)

The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) is tasked with permitting new energy projects. The council “must take into account protection of environmental quality, the safety of energy facilities, and concern for energy availability.” On April 29, the council released its assessment of the proposed Horse Heaven wind and solar energy project across an area of more than 72,000 acres.


In their decision, EFSEC councilmembers added restrictions on construction of wind turbines near existing and historical nesting sites of the ferruginous hawk, an endangered species in Washington state. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife lists the hawk as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in Washington.


Noting that the population is declining, EFSEC council members wrote, “we find that Project would threaten the persistence of the ferruginous hawk not only in the Project area but also in Washington State.” As a result, the size of the project was significantly reduced.

In response, Governor Inslee directed EFSEC’s members to reconsider their decision, specifically objecting to the restrictions related to the hawk and highlighting the need for new energy generation.


In his letter, the governor wrote, “the region will need to build roughly twenty additional clean energy projects of this magnitude to meet Washington's projected electricity load growth by 2035.”


For context, the entire 72,000-acre project would generate about as much electricity in a year as the Ice Harbor Dam, one of the four dams on the Lower Snake River and one-third the energy generated by the nuclear-powered Columbia Generating Station in the Tri-Cities. Unlike wind turbines, dams and nuclear plants generate a predictable supply of electricity.

The governor noted that, “significant impacts may be accepted as part of this vital Project where they cannot be reasonably mitigated” (emphasis added). The key word in that sentence is “vital.”


In the governor’s judgement declaring something to be “vital” means that other concerns, like impacts to endangered species, become less important. That is a purely subjective judgement. Indeed, the EFSEC members made the opposite judgment.


In dismissing the risk to the ferruginous hawk, Governor Inslee parroted the argument of the company looking to build the turbines, writing, “The sad reality is that the ferruginous hawk population has declined to minimal levels at the site over many years, due to various factors including agricultural and residential land use decisions that pre-date this Project.”


His argument is that since the hawk’s population has already declined to low levels, additional disturbance, even if it permanently precluded hawks from returning to the area, is acceptable.


When the governor was given a choice between killing wind turbines or hawks, the hawks lost.


Why do hawks matter less than salmon or wolves?

That choice – justifying harm to a threatened species to support an economic goal – is at odds with the governor’s judgement in other cases.


Notably, the governor supports destroying the four Lower Snake River dams to help salmon recover. Governor Inslee minimized concerns about the ferruginous hawk because the state will need much more CO2-free energy to meet future demand. That argument doesn’t seem to apply to the Snake River dams even though, unlike the hawk, Snake River Spring Chinook populations aren’t declining.


We could also point to the letter Governor Inslee sent to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife earlier this year, telling them to create new rules to prevent wolves from being killed when they threaten livestock. Responding to the request of environmental activists, the governor wrote that existing rules used by WDFW could “be used to unjustly kill an increasing number of Washington’s wolves.” Again, as opposed to declines in the ferruginous hawk population, Washington’s wolf population has increased significantly and may be delisted in the near future. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation already consider wolves recovered on their land.


The governor wants tougher restrictions on energy production in the case of salmon – where populations are not declining – and ranchers in the case of wolves – where populations have increased significantly.


For the ferruginous hawk – where populations are declining such that it is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need – wind power trumps wildlife. The governor’s letter to EFSEC offers alternatives to mitigate the impact to the hawk, but he is clear that he is willing to allow “significant impacts” to build the wind project.


The decision wasn’t based on “science.” The governor’s choice comes down to what he, personally, considers important. In the case of building more wind turbines to achieve the climate targets at the center of his political image, he is redoubling his effort. In the case of wolves and salmon, he is willing to risk energy reliability and economic wellbeing to avoid risks to species that are doing better than the hawk.


How do we manage environmental tradeoffs?

Ultimately, there is no right answer. There are arguments for preserving hawk habitat as well as generating more electricity. I can argue that we should preference the private property rights of the landowners who benefit from building wind turbines. I can also argue that local communities who have to deal with impacts caused by the wind turbines, should have a say in mitigating potential harms.


But the process of determine the best answer should not be haphazard and based simply on a subjective assessment of political goals.


In the case of the Horse Heaven wind farm, the governor’s judgement is driven in part by his own needlessly restrictive energy policy that essentially makes wind the only new source of allowable energy. With no reasonable alternatives, it becomes virtually impossible to reject a wind farm without admitting the state’s energy policy is unattainable.


Given that policy and political environment and the need more much more energy in the future, the controversy over the Horse Heaven wind is just the first of many energy controversies to come.


Todd Myers is the Vice-President for Research at the Washington Policy Center, a non-profit think tank that promotes public policy based on free-market solutions. He can be reached at tmyers@washingtonpolicy.org.

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