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The Impact of Energy Development on the Environment: A Look at Wildlife with Dr. Michael Hutchins

imagfesAs much as I was awed by the poverty-stricken nation of India on a recent visit, and what many westerners would consider deplorable conditions, I was impressed by the country’s “green movement,” which is rapidly emerging on the subcontinent.

South Asia’s largest nation will soon surpass China as the most populated country in the world—a recognition no country purposely seeks. By most measures, the largest democracy in the world remains a developing country, but it is making steady headway as an economic powerhouse and as an environmentally friendly one at that.

India has a severe electricity deficit, which I can attest to. Every place I stayed required back up battery generated power as a result of a nationwide electricity deficiency.  Despite the inconvenience to citizens and visitors, the government remains committed to clean energy solutions.

Already a world leader in wind power generation, India is poised to become a leader in solar power, with plans for solar projects in 35,000 square kilometer area of the Thar Desert (Great Indian Desert) in the Northwestern region of the subcontinent.  These proposed projects will generate anywhere from 700 to 2100 giga-watts of power.

Unfortunately, not all countries are making similar headway in the race for clean energy and this is at great cost to wildlife.  We know that some forms of energy development threaten the natural world, but what specific impacts does it have on “threatened” and “endangered” species and other imperiled populations of wildlife?  Once again, I turn to my esteemed colleague, Dr. Michael Hutchins to answer these questions, as he has graciously participated in many previous interviews with the National Geographic Society.

Jordan: Let’s begin by discussing the differences between conventional and alternative energy resources and how we go about extracting such resources like fossil fuels?

indefxMichael: Traditional energy sources historically involved the burning of wood, animal dung, whale oil, bees wax, and other natural substances. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution, we now think of “conventional” energy resources primarily as fossil fuel-related. This is energy trapped by the anaerobic decomposition of ancient organisms, which is now in the form of natural gas, coal and petroleum. These are burned to release heat, which in turn, drives engines, electrical generators, heating and cooling units, etc. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil_fuel). These energy sources are non-renewable, meaning that once used, they cannot be used again. Whether or not to include nuclear energy as a non-renewable form of energy has been the subject of considerable debate     (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_proposed_as_renewable_energy). While nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases as does the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear fuel can be used up, and therefore is not technically renewable. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider it a non-renewable form of energy.

Alternative or renewable energy sources are those that can be used over and over again. Also, unlike fossil fuels, these sources do not produce high levels of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) that are responsible for anthropogenic global climate change (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_energy).  These include wind, solar, bio-fuels, wave action, geo-thermal, and hydroelectric.

A recent report commissioned by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that global energy use will grow by 56 percent between 2010 and 2040, with half of that increase being attributable to growth in China and India, the world’s most populated countries (http://www.eia.gov/pressroom/presentations/sieminski_07252013.pdf).  It further predicted that fossil fuels will continue to supply nearly 80 percent of world energy use through 2040, which does not bode well for society to be able to reign in global climate change.

Jordan: What are some prime examples of energy resource extraction efforts that compete directly with wildlife conservation initiatives or potentially compromise ecosystems and their faunal assemblages?

Michael: All forms of energy development have potential negative impacts on wildlife and their habitats, but carbon-based, non-renewable energy, such as petroleum, natural gas and coal, is by far the worst.  Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that are responsible for anthropogenic global climate change (http://www.agu.org/news/press/pr_archives/2013/2013-38.shtml).  I explained how climate change is impacting native wildlife and their habitats in a previous interview (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/10/the-climate-change-conundrum-what-the-future-is-beginning-to-look-like-for-wildlife/), so won’t go into detail here. However, these impacts include major alterations in habitats, due primarily to changes in temperature and precipitation, with some areas becoming warmer and dryer and some becoming colder and wetter. This, along with associated outbreaks of insect pests, such as bark beetles (http://www.usu.edu/beetle/documents/Bentzetal_2010.pdf), and extreme weather events, can result in pervasive changes in vegetation, and availability of water and cover, which is making some previously ideal habitats uninhabitable for some species.

Changes in seasonal phenomena (phenology) can also result in mismatches between various species and their habitats, as for example when birds arrive on their breeding grounds or butterflies emerge before their food resources are available.  The result can be increased mortality or reproductive failure (e.g., http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2013/08/13/dramatic-changes-in-ruby-throated-hummingbird-migration-theyre-arriving-earlier-migrating-slower/; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-change-may-disrupt-monarch-butterfly-migration).  This is bad enough, but combine that with numerous other environmental problems associated with fossil fuels and the results can be devastating. Not only do these fuels pollute the air we and other species breath (http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/the-hidden-cost-of-fossil.html), they also acidify our lakes and oceans (http://e360.yale.edu/feature/an_ominous_warning_on_the__effects_of_ocean_acidification/2241/; http://apps.seattletimes.com/reports/sea-change/2013/sep/11/pacific-ocean-perilous-turn-overview/http://www.enn.com/pollution/article/43023; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130825171730.htm; http://www.caryinstitute.org/newsroom/eastern-us-water-supplies-threatened-legacy-acid-rain), pollute our drinking water (as, for example, occurs in natural gas “fracking” (i.e., hydraulic fracturing) operations: http://grist.org/news/study-links-fracking-to-drinking-water-pollution/), and toxic oil spills can kill both freshwater and marine life.  The recent massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point; its effects are still being felt years after the event (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13123036; http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/studentnews/louisiana-oil-spill; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/25/gulf-oil-spill-recovery-study_n_3984577.html).

The pressure to harvest petroleum from oil sand and shale deposits in Alberta, Wyoming and other locations is also growing. Oil sand deposits are a mix of sand, silt, clay, and water and contain around 10-12 percent bitumen. The vast majority of these reserves lie more than 300 feet below the surface and must be extracted in place, involving the injection of steam into the ground, which melts the bitumen and brings it to the surface. The impacts on the landscape and wildlife are considerable (Dyer, S. and Simieritsch, T. 2010. Will oil trump nature in Canada? The Wildlife Professional 4(1): 58-61). Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen–a solid mixture of organic material–from which liquid hydrocarbons called shale oil can be produced. Extracting shale oil is considerably more costly than the production of conventional crude oil both financially and in terms of its environmental impact. Most exploitation of oil shale involves open pit and strip mining (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_shale).

The capturing of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is another recently-developed technology for energy exploitation. In this case, water is typically mixed with sand and chemicals, and the mixture is injected at high pressure into an existing wellbore to create small fractures, along which natural gas and other products may be removed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing).  There is considerable concern about the possible effects of this technique, including ground water contamination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_hydraulic_fracturing; http://ecowatch.com/2013/report-calculates-damage-by-fracking/).  Furthermore, there is evidence that fracking is linked to an increase in human-induced earthquakes (http://theenergycollective.com/josephromm/249306/shale-shocked-sharp-rise-us-earthquakes-directly-linked-fracking-wastewater-reinje), and it may also release harmful radiation (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-02/radiation-in-pennsylvania-creek-seen-as-legacy-offrackin.html).

arctic-wildlife-pipeline-bear-family-pipe_43268_600x450The infrastructure necessary to harvest and transport fossil fuels also has a significant impact on wildlife and their habitats. Much habitat is lost to oil fields, pipelines, storage tanks, railways, shipping docks and a variety of other development, including roads and power lines, necessary to keep these operations running.  In some cases, regulators do not even know where they are, let alone what kinds of environmental problems they might cause (http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20130926/boom-unregulated-natural-gas-pipelines-posing-new-risks). The resulting habitat modification or losses are highly problematic if the goal is to conserve wildlife and wild lands.  The disturbances associated with infrastructure development and maintenance alone is enough to illicit alarm and flight reactions in wildlife, causing vulnerable species such as sage grouse, mule deer and grassland birds, to expend precious energy, and/or to avoid such habitats altogether (Riley, T.Z., Bayne, E.M., Dale, C. et al. 2012. Impacts of Crude Oil and Natural Gas Developments on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat in the Rocky Mountain Region. The Wildlife Society Technical Review 12-02. Bethesda, MD: The Wildlife Society; Bies, L. 2008. The energy boom: A bust for wildlife in the Rocky Mountain west? The Wildlife Professional 2(1): 20-25).

Nuclear energy, though it does not  produce greenhouse gases, is risky, as evidenced by the recent events in Fukushima, Japan (http://world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident-2011/#.UguWKGvD-Uk; http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Latest-News-Wires/2013/0806/Fukushima-s-new-emergency-radioactive-water-leaks-video; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23779561).  If radiation escapes containment, it can be extremely harmful to living organisms. In addition, radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants must be stored safely for thousands of years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-level_radioactive_waste_management). Nonetheless, some have argued that even given the substantial risks that nuclear energy is preferable to our continued dependence on fossil fuels (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/business/economy/coming-full-circle-in-energy.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0).

Jordan: Although alternative energy resources and their procurement presumably have much less of an impact on free-ranging wildlife populations, they do have some costs to wildlife. Can you talk about this?

inddexMichael: Renewable energy sources are desirable because they do not contribute to anthropogenic global climate change. However, they are not without their drawbacks (Hutchins, M. and Bies, L. 2010. How green is “green energy? Outdoor America Winter: 16-17). For example, wind farms produce electricity with the renewable power of wind; but, the fast-moving blades that generate electricity are known to kill large numbers of bats and birds (Cohn, J. 2008. How ecofriendly are wind farms? BioScience 58 (7): 576-578). The blades may strike flying bats and birds directly, but, in the case of fragile bats, the turbulence and barometric air pressure changes caused by these moving blades alone can cause serious physical injury and death (http://www.fort.usgs.gov/BatsWindmills/).  The siting of wind farms is a critical issue; they should be kept away from major bird and bat migratory routes, hilltops, or other sensitive habitats where birds and bats gather in large numbers to breed nest, or roost (Abhat, D. 2007. Behold the giants: The potential impacts of wind energy on wildlife. The Wildlife Professional 1(2): 37-41). One large wind farm project in Minnesota was recently scrapped due to public concern about its potential impact on bats and birds (http://www.twincities.com/news/ci_24112961/developers-formally-abandon-wind-farm-plan).  Innovation may provide the key to solving such conflicts. New bat- and bird-friendly designs for wind farms have huge potential to reduce these risks; but they have yet to be implemented on a large scale (http://www.treehugger.com/wind-technology/new-bladeless-wind-turbine-design-may-keep-birds-and-bats-safe.html; http://www.theenvironmentalblog.org/2012/09/bird-bat-friendly-wind-turbines/).

Solar energy can also be problematic as the panels and associated infrastructure can take up vast areas of wildlife habitat, often in arid regions (Leitner, P. 2009. The promise and peril of solar power: As solar power facilities spread, desert wildlife faces risk. The Wildlife Professional 3(1): 48-53).  It has been suggested that we would be better off using existing urban and suburban buildings to support solar panels instead of using remaining wildlife habitat (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-solar-suburbia-the-way-to-power-modern-cities), and I agree.  There are certainly plenty of existing buildings, parking lots and other structures that could support solar panels, but then energy companies would have to lease the space, thus cutting into their profits.  From an economic perspective, it seems to be more cost effective for them to buy up cheap land in arid regions to house their solar arrays. The problem is, of course, that these lands are not “barren”; they are, in fact, home to indigenous wildlife, including some endemic species, such as endangered gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus), lizards, snakes, birds and a wide variety of other animals.

insdexBio-fuels production has its potential drawbacks, indirect as well as direct. Direct effects include the conversion of wildlife-rich habitat to bio-fuels production monocultures.  For example, corn is often used to produce bio-fuels, but it is a highly unfriendly crop for wildlife. It also requires a great deal of water and fertilizer to grow, thus increasing its environmental impact (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091001081307.htm). The use of non-native, potentially invasive plants to produce bio-fuels could result in further unwanted species introductions (http://www.invasivespecies.gov/home_documents/BiofuelWhitePaper.pdf).  The ultimate impact of biofuels production on wildlife will depend on what stocks are used, where it is grown and how stocks are managed and harvested. A failure to pay attention to the details, and to how biofuels production is implemented, could affect sensitive species, such as grassland birds, and result in an overall loss of biological diversity (Rupp, S.P., Bies, L., Glaser, A., et al. 2012. Effects of Bioenergy Production on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat. Wildlife Society Technical Review 12-2. Bethesda, MD: The Wildlife Society).

hydroelectricty_201_600x450Hydroelectric power, where the built up force of flowing water drives electric generators, is a renewable source of energy; however, it also has considerable environmental impact (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectricity). The damming of rivers and streams prevents migratory fish from swimming up river.  In addition, massive amounts of silt tend to back up against these dams after years of use, trapping pollutants.  Fisheries experts have had to design and build expensive fish ladders for migratory fish, like salmon, to be able to circumvent dams and make their way upstream to their traditional breeding grounds. Other fish species, such as sturgeon (family Acipenseridae), are unable to move past these barriers, thus isolating their populations. Reduced water flow downstream from the dam prevents the buildup of sediment, particularly in river deltas, important habitats for wildlife.  Some dams are now being destroyed in order to reestablish the natural flow of rivers and streams (e.g., the Elwha River Dam in Olympic National Park, WA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elwha_Dam).

Wave energy is not currently being employed on a large commercial basis, but it is a form of renewable energy that harnesses the power of ocean wave action and uses it to generate electricity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_power).  Geothermal energy is “harvested” from heat generated by the earth’s core.  Geothermal energy is a sustainable and environmentally friendly energy resource. Recent technological advances have dramatically expanded the range of viable geothermic resources, especially for practical applications such as home heating. Geothermal wells can release greenhouse gases trapped deep within the earth, but these emissions are much lower than those associated with the burning of fossil fuels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_energy).

Jordan: These issues often become complicated on a legislative front. For example, I’m well acquainted with http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/25/the-threat-of-invasive-species-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/the USFWS’s 10(j) rule, which dictates/influences the restoration and reestablishment of “Endangered” species in various contexts and conditions that require greater management flexibility, such as areas where resource development practices are conducted or being considered. Can you talk about such regulations and their impact both here in North America and elsewhere?

Michael:  Well-known environmentalist David Suzuki once said, “The environmental review process is flawed since it focuses on each proposed development as something that stands alone. But an individual well or dam is not separate or isolated from its surroundings – air, water, plants and animals pay no attention to our imposed, artificial boundaries.” I agree, and after reviewing the current morass of state and federal regulations regarding both traditional and alternative energy development, I am less convinced that wildlife conservation is a priority.  I am not an expert in state or federal regulatory rules regarding energy development; but, apart from being exceedingly complicated, they are also often inconsistent. Traditional oil and gas development is regulated by federal law (http://www.oilandgasbmps.org/laws/federal_law.php), but given the money to be made and strategic importance of fossil fuels, when push comes to shove, it is often wildlife and wildlife habitat, and even human health, that seem to lose out.  To illustrate this problem, oil drilling is currently underway in 12 U.S. national parks and 30 more may be threatened with drilling in the near future (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2012/09/12/37152/drilling-could-threaten-our-national-parks/).  Parks that are currently being drilled include Florida’s Big Cypress National Park, home to the endangered Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi).  In addition, with the rise of new technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), regulatory efforts at the federal level have not kept up, thus allowing the states to develop their own rules (http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/energyhome/fracking-update-what-states-are-doing.aspx). This has, in turn, led to considerable controversy (http://www.rc.com/documents/Negro_FrackingWars_2012.pdf) and environmental damage, such as the recent finding that the closer one lives to a Marcellus shale well (that has been hydraulically fractured for underground natural gas), the higher the probability that your drinking water is contaminated with methane (http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8172.full?sid=60f82e21-25f7-4d27-8895-55930bb2b9f7). One recent development that does offer some hope is the Environmental Protection Agency’s statement that it will regulate emissions from new coal-fired power plants (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/19/epa-limits-emissions-coal-power-plants-carbon-capture-technology/2838391/ ).  This comes as the result of new technologies that make it possible to eliminate a greater percentage of the greenhouse gases emitted by such plants.  That being said, the energy industry is fighting these regulations, calling them too costly.  Further, already- existing plants will unfortunately not be subject to these regulations (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=current-us-coal-plants-excluded-from-carbon-capture) and states with many coal plants may end up finding ways to work around  the new regulations, as the EPA appears ready to grant them some leeway (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/business/energy-environment/epa-rules-on-emissions-at-existing-coal-plants-might-give-states-leeway.html?_r=3&).

golden-eagle_551_600x450In the case of alternative energy, wind farms have probably generated the most controversy due to their known impact on birds and bats. Wildlife advocates and wind industry representatives have held discussions about how to minimize the impact of wind energy development on wildlife (http://thehill.com/blogs/regwatch/energyenvironment/320545-wildlife-groups-wind-industry-meet-on-eagle-permit-rule-); however, the loss of birds, including federally-protected golden and bald eagles, continues with few consequences for developers (http://www.weather.com/news/science/dead-bald-eagles-20130912).  Attempts have been made to formulate regulations regarding the siting of wind energy facilities (http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/habitat/planning/energy/wind_power_siting_regs_wildlife.pdf), but these often vary from state to state, and more research is needed to inform such decisions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a new draft plan for a Northern California wind farm that could become a test case. The Service will allow the farm’s 50 wind turbines to kill up to five golden eagles per year (http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/article_8606f300-e997-5dbe-8cb5-90269fb68ab1.html; http://www.modbee.com/2013/09/27/2943873/eagle-conservation-effort-at-solano.html).  In exchange, the company will move some power lines that have been electrocuting birds and take other measures to protect them.  However, as they say, the “proof is in the pudding”, so the effectiveness of such measures in reducing mortality will need to be accurately evaluated. Unfortunately, current proposed rules call for industry to self-report avian mortality. While some companies may report this data accurately, others may not, especially if it is not in their best economic interest.  In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed that wind companies be granted 30-year take permits.  However, a great deal can change in 30 years and a five-year window seems much more appropriate. Many bird conservation organizations, such as the American Bird Conservancy, believe that more stringent, verifiable regulations are necessary to ensure that our native bird populations, including endangered species, are not significantly impacted by wind power development (http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/pdf/CLC-ABC_EaglePermitDuration_Comments.pdf; http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/pdf/ABC_eagle_take_permit_comments_2-17-12.pdf).  Indeed, without proper regulation, this rapidly growing industry has the potential to kill an estimated million or more birds per year.

Better and more stringent regulations and enforcement are undoubtedly needed, but our nation seems to be making a head-long rush into alternative energy without fully understanding its possible consequences for wildlife. While we do need to be moving quickly to address global climate change, we also need to make well-informed decisions.  At present, we are often making those decisions in the absence of definitive knowledge, and the risk to wildlife could therefore be considerable.

Jordan: Can you provide some examples of particular endangered or threatened species that have been or may be impacted by alternative energy development?

indlexMichael: Large scale alternative energy projects are so new, that there is not a great deal of data regarding their impact on endangered species.  However, there is concern about the possible impact of wind energy development on endangered bats, such as the Virginia big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) and Indiana bat (Myotis sodalist) (http://www.examiner.com/article/beech-ridge-wind-farm-expected-to-have-effects-on-endangered-bat-species) and endangered birds, such as the whooping crane (http://www.kcet.org/news/rewire/wind/feathers-fly-over-wind-turbine-threat-to-whooping-cranes.html).  With only around 400 individuals living in the wild, the tolerance for whooping crane (Grus Americana) deaths due to wind energy development is very low. Wave energy has the potential to harm endangered whales, sharks, sea birds, salmon and sturgeon (http://www.ehow.com/about_6138183_wave-its-impact-endangered-species.html).  Concern has also been expressed about the impact of biofuels production on endangered species. The Cerrado or grasslands area of Brazil’s central highlands is of particular concern, as its conversion to agricultural uses, including biofuels production, has been rapid. This area has a high incidence of species richness, including the critically endangered cone-billed tanager (Conothraupis mesoleuca), and threatened species of mammals, such as the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), Pampas cat (Leopardus pajeros) and maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) (http://www.birdlife.org/eu/EU_policy/Biofuels/eu_biofuels2.html).  Biofuels production and harvesting has the potential to seriously impact populations of threatened and endangered grassland birds in North America (http://www.abcbirds.org/conservationissues/threats/energyproduction/biomass.html), including mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii ) and Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), just to name a few (http://www.stateofthebirds.org/habitats/grasslands).

(Photos are property of the National Geographic Society)