The Province’s green energy act isn’t so green when wind farms threaten sensitive habitat and wildlife.

By Douglas Hunter

In November 2008, environmental groups and the energy industry south of the border announced a remarkable collaboration. They formed the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) with the aim of ensuring that locations for wind farms are selected with sensitivity to ecosystems and endangered species, while also developing “best practices” for the wind-power industry. Signing on were such leading environmental groups as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Everyone agreed that wind turbines are an important part of the green energy mix, capable of reducing pollution and combatting climate change. But everyone also agreed that wind farms can have a serious negative impact on the environment if put in the wrong place or configured in the wrong way.

Conservationists in Ontario can only look on with envy. Wind-farm developers here do not have to cater to environmental concerns because of the provincial government’s gung-ho green-energy agenda. Under the revisions to the Environmental Protection Act this past spring, a hearing to voice concerns about a green-energy project can be secured only in the case of projects that, if approved, might cause “serious harm to human health; or serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life or the natural environment.” That sets the bar perilously high: presumably a wind farm can be permitted to do serious harm if it can be argued that this harm is not irreversible. As for chronic, low-grade impacts whose ultimate consequences may be unknowable, forget about them. The green revolution is rolling right over those.

With the passage of the Green Energy and Economy Act last May, the Province signalled that it would no longer tolerate grassroots opposition that smacked of NIMBYism. To get green developments (along with the flood of envisioned jobs) moving at top speed, municipalities were stripped of their planning powers on such projects. In this climate of aggressive fast-tracking, there is simply no imperative to create a Canadian equivalent of the AWWI.

In fairness, the actions of many local opposition groups invited this type of legislation. Too often, such opponents reflexively opposed change, prattling on about property values, distributing misleading or out-of-date “evidence” of the evils of “industrial” wind farms, and talking trash about climate change. Unfortunately, in the process of cracking down on ill-informed or short-sighted critics, legitimate wind-farm issues have been swept aside.

There are good reasons to be concerned about the impacts of wind farms. An article in the Autumn 2009 issue of TNC’s magazine recounts how the Elk River Wind Project in Kansas invaded one of the last surviving examples of wild prairie in the state before the local TNC chapter could do anything to stop it. “What had been nearly 8,000 acres of low impact ranch land in one of the most threatened habitats in the world was now sliced by 20 miles of roads, 100 towers, transmission lines and a sizable electrical substation.” TNC, as part of AWWI, is now working to steer the state’s green-energy boom away from such locations. Such work is going on across the United States.

Whether an Ontario project equivalent to Elk River would meet the new test of threatening “serious and irreversible harm” to the environment, I cannot say. We are now largely dependent on the wisdom of provincial bureaucrats to permit or prevent green-energy projects. And environmentalists, to a large degree, have lined up wholeheartedly behind the green revolution. They, too, want to see the coal-fired plants taken off-line pronto and are sometimes a little too ready to agree that voices of concern in rural Ontario are just selfish natterings from the tiresome NIMBY crowd.

In some ways, “green energy” is a misnomer. Such projects can do tremendous good in reducing pollution and combating climate change, but they can also have tremendous negative impacts on natural spaces. Witness Ontario’s historic enthusiasm for that other “green energy” marvel, the hydroelectric dam, which has rendered numerous waterways unrecognizable, flooded vast tracts of land and even reversed courses of rivers. There is more to being green than not spewing carbon dioxide. And while wind power deserves to be part of the new energy mix, it does not deserve carte blanche to commandeer any spot bureaucrats and developers say it should. Ten years from now, we may be looking to our U.S. neighbours in envy, wondering how they got their green energy infrastructure so right when we got ours so wrong.

douglas_hunterDouglas Hunter is the author of Half Moon published by Bloomsbury Press. His last story for ON Nature was about aquaculture (“Muddy waters,” Summer 2009).