Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Turtles vs. Wind Turbines

A tricky dilemma has arisen in eastern Ontario, as two issues dear to my own heart - species conservation and renewable energy - face off in the courts.
A project to install nine wind turbines in Prince Edward County, enough to power 50,000 homes and create 300 construction jobs, is in danger of being rejected due to its potential effect on the endangered Blandings turtles that are found in the area. The developer, Gilead Power Corp, are being as responsible as they can be, and indeed are bending over backwards to accommodate the problem, including setting aside 40 hectares of protected habitat (over and above the 8 hectares the development will disturb), funding a research project on the turtle at a Canadian university, monitoring the turtles for 20 years, and even building only between October and May while the turtles are in hibernation. The location was used in the 1940s and 1950s for testing air-to-ground bombs by the Canadian defence department, a traumatic episode that, incredibly, had apparently little or no effect on the local Blandings turtle population.
It's important to note that it is not the wind turbines themselves that are being taken to task here, although a cursory reading of the articles about the conflict might well give that impression. The problem is the 5.4 km of access roads needed, and the possibility that the turtles may cross the roads and come to grief, although the company are proposing to close the roads to the public anyway, and so only sporadic maintenance traffic would be involved.
It's interesting to note that there is also a distinctly similar argument going in British Columbia, where a wind farm development is at odds with a spawning stream for rainbow trout. In that case, the species in question is not endangered, and the risk is to a couple of sports fishing clubs, so I have less sympathy with the plaintiffs. However, one can see it becoming a common problems for an already beleaguered renewable energy sector, and it seems such a shame to see two eminently worthy environmental issues at loggerheads.
The outcome of the Ontario Court of Appeal case could have far-reaching implications for future wind energy projects in the province, or, in the event the development company wins the case, for future interpretation of the endangered species legislation. My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that, in this case at any rate, the development company is doing enough, and the risks to the turtles are sufficiently circumscribed and minimal, that the two could happily coexist.
To me, the ideal outcome would be for the wind energy project to go ahead, but with an explicit understanding - and, perhaps more importantly, a precedent for future projects of any sort - that endangered species and environmental considerations of all kinds are important and not to be trumped lightly, and that development companies SHOULD be ready to bend over backwards to accommodate such concerns, as I believe Gilead Power Corp are in this case.
The courts, however, may not agree. Watch this space.

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