United States

United States

Condor campaign blows ill media wind

The National Audubon Society has launched an advertising campaign to halt a wind farm proposed in the north of Los Angeles County by Enron Corp, the large energy company based in Houston. "Kill the Condors?" is the eye-catching message emblazoned on huge roadside billboards in Houston and Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the campaign has prompted wide media attention. The proposed project, however, is far from being built.

"Kill the Condors?" is the eye-catching message emblazoned on two huge roadside billboards erected last month in Houston and Los Angeles. The billboards show a California Condor-one of America's most endangered species of birds-flying towards wind turbines. The advertisements are part of a major month-long campaign launched in September by the National Audubon Society (NAS), a leading bird conservation group, to halt a wind farm proposed in the north of Los Angeles County by Enron Corp, the large energy company based in Houston. Not surprisingly, the campaign has prompted wide media attention.

The proposed project, however, is far from being built, says Enron. Last year the California Energy Commission awarded the proposal, near Gorman north of Pyramid Lake, a $7 million subsidy from state restructuring funds. To be eligible for the funds, projects must be installed by January 1, 2002 (Windpower Monthly, August 1998). But Enron only applied for the state subsidy as a "place holder" to keep its options open.

"We have no plans to break ground," says Gary Foster, speaking for the company. "But we would like the option to be able to proceed." Enron has never intended to go ahead without extensive environmental reviews to ensure there would be no threat to the condor. Enron will not build a project that will endanger the condor or any other species, he adds.

Threatening the PTC

Meanwhile, NAS, with the financial backing of a powerful company that owns property near the proposed wind farm, warns the project will become a "condor Cuisinart", referring to a brand of food grinder, because it is nearby the habitat for 20 of the 49 wild condors. "It's hard to imagine a worse idea than putting a condor Cuisinart next door to critical condor habitat," says Daniel Beard of NAS. In the short term, NAS is lobbying for changes in legislation that would reintroduce the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind-currently stalled because of a broad partisan fight on Capitol Hill over taxes-so that the incentive would not be available to projects within ten miles of the so-called "critical habitat" of any endangered avian species.

The stakes are high. The California Condor, the largest land bird in North America with a wing span of three metres, has been the subject of a multi-million dollar government "captive breeding program" since 1987, when the few surviving birds were captured so their population could be built up in captivity and subsequently re-released. The US government spends an estimated $1.7 million yearly on the condor program.

The proposed Enron project, 15- 18.75 MW on land it has leased since 1982, is about one mile from where one of the last nesting condor pairs was captured. "The government is encouraging, through the tax code, the construction of a project that is going to kill a species that another part of the government is spending millions to save," says Beard. The NAS has one million members and supporters and has only rarely launched a national campaign to oppose an individual energy project.

The campaign is the result of an unusual alliance between an environmental group and a "diverse agribusiness" company. Tejon Ranch Co, which owns 270,000 acres in Los Angeles and Kern Counties and which has plans to develop homes and commercial properties on some of that land, has financed the billboard ads. According to the Los Angeles Times, it is also supplying the money behind "Kill The Condors?" brochures and advertisements that have been placed in two congressional newspapers, Roll Call and The Hill.

Placatory steps

Enron officials were due to meet with representatives of US Fish and Wildlife in late September. "We are starting to engage them," says Foster. He questions the motivation of a campaign funded by Tejon Ranch, which he notes would like to develop property on many more acres in the same area of northern Los Angeles County. Indeed Tejon Ranch has letters of intent signed with three homebuilders interested in developing part of its property, although it says it has no actual plans.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the condor project, has yet to take sides, although some of its officials have expressed concern. "We do know that wind farms cause bird mortality," says Robert Mesta of the condor program in California. "Our highest source of mortality is condors colliding with man made structures, such as power and communication lines," he explains. "We definitely have a concern. We don't have many birds out there. If we lose one, it's significant."

No condors are known to have been killed by wind turbines, although there has been much study of endangered golden eagles fatally colliding with turbines, or at least older smaller wind turbines with lattice towers and faster moving blades, as in the Altamont Pass. Despite the concerns, Mesta says Enron should be allowed to address environmental concerns formally if and when it decides to proceed and start permitting on the project.

Ironically, it is also almost exactly ten years since a similar plan, proposed for the same location by wind company Zond Systems, was turned down by the local county board of supervisors. Zond was subsequently bought by Enron. At the time opponents-local residents, the NAS, the Sierra Club and Tejon Ranch-cited aesthetic issues as well as impacts on the environment, including the condor.

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