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Feud erupts over Texas Gulf Coast projects -- Risk of bird kills perhaps not the real issue

A Texas feud has been brewing on 5000 square kilometres of private land near the Gulf Coast where two wind projects are under construction on one ranch's property -- and a nearby ranch means to stop them, citing fears of massive bird kills. Questions are being raised, however, about whether fears for the well-being of migrating are really what lie behind the battle.

The projects, expected to bring nearly 500 MW of an eventual 1200 MW online this year, belong to Australian investment group Babcock & Brown and the American wind development division of Spanish utility Iberdrola. They are being built near major avian migratory passageways some 145 kilometres south of Corpus Christi on the 5000 square kilometre Kenedy Ranch.

The neighbouring King Ranch, a 34,000 square kilometre landmass, larger than Rhode Island, has created the Coastal Habitat Alliance (CHA), an 11-member group that keeps trying to halt the wind projects by repeatedly bringing lawsuits. The CHA alleges that further environmental review is needed -- especially in Texas, where neither state nor federal approval is required to build wind projects on private land.

"We could have the worst bird kill that the wind industry has ever seen. What is that going to do to Texas? We have no permitting process on wind development here -- not at the state level and not at the county level. There's nothing," says Elyse Yates of CHA, which counts the American Bird Conservancy, the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation and the Coastal Bend Audubon Society among its members.

Three year studies

Iberdrola's initial phase calls for 84 turbines on 60 square kilometres, while Babcock & Brown's near term plan consists of 118 machines. Both companies are using 2.4 MW Mitsubishi turbines and expect to complete construction within the next few months. The companies enjoy solid environmental reputations and insist they have completed due diligence through more than three years of studies at the location. The completed projects will reportedly be worth $1.2 billion.

"No one has done as much environmental research for any project in the US as we have done for this project," says Matt Dallas of Babcock & Brown. "And no one is going to the lengths to ensure bird safety that we're going to with this one. We don't just develop these things and walk away. We're one of the companies that own, operate and manage for the long term. Certainly we're not going to develop this to get a black eye."

One body of local opinion says the real problem is not birds, but that the powerful King Ranch, with longstanding interests in oil, cattle and hunting junkets, resents the aesthetic encroachment of wind turbines. "If you understand how South Texas works, the King Ranch ran as a little fiefdom for well over 100 years," says a Texas government official who asks not to be named. "It must drive them nuts that they can't make it stop."

According to Dallas, Babcock & Brown's closest turbines are nine miles from the water and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed the company's voluntary environmental studies. "We did get a letter fully supporting the project from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but we've been fighting an uphill battle," Dallas says, adding that even a local newspaper is owned by the King Ranch. "It's amazing how much political clout this ranch has down there."

High tech radar

Meantime, both companies are investing in high-tech radar systems capable of shutting down their entire projects in less than a minute if concentrations of birds are detected. Furthermore, Dallas insists the birds will travel far above turbine height. "The only times when they come lower is when there's a low cloud ceiling and low visibility," Dallas says. "Those are unique situations on the coast and may only happen a couple times a year. We think that even the potential scenarios are very rare."

While Babcock & Brown did not release its environmental report to the public, CHA hired Colorado consultants EDM International to examine the study issued by Iberdrola. EDM views the Kenedy Ranch as a stopping point for migrating birds and calls the radar insufficient.

"But the key is in where you place the infrastructure," says EDM project manager Lori Nielsen. "And in the case of the Texas Gulf Coast, specifically along the Laguna Madre, what we're dealing with is a really complex system. In the long term, these facilities can have huge repercussions." Nielsen says serious questions remain and argues that when dealing with the dynamics of an ecosystem like the Texas Gulf Coast, one to three years of studies will not necessarily uncover long term impacts.

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