Breaking out of a straitjacket of bad publicity is a perennial challenge for oil and gas companies, and the industry’s public relations specialists could be forgiven for surveying the fast-rising renewable energy industries with an envious eye.

Seen by many people as the good guys of the energy transition, the renewables industry looks like an easy sell.

Ask a member of the public to conjure up an image of oil pollution, and the chosen frame will tend to be a tarred seabird struggling to escape the sticky perils of a spill.

But when things go wrong for renewables, wreaking destruction on flora or fauna, the result can be just as much of a public relations disaster as those impacting the oil industry.

In the US last week, ESI Energy was fined $8 million for the deaths of at least 150 bald eagles and golden eagles at its wind farms since 2012.

Most of the deaths occurred when the eagles were struck by wind turbine blades, the company admitted when it pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

There have been similar accusations in the past, especially at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where wind turbines had to be removed from many locations and replaced with a newer generation of fewer “thoughtfully-sited” repowered turbines.

Getting it wrong

According to federal prosecutors, ESI was responsible for the “documented deaths of golden eagles due to blunt force trauma from being struck by a wind turbine blade at a particular facility in Wyoming or New Mexico, where ESI had not applied for the necessary permits”.

ESI promised to apply for the required permits for any unavoidable deaths of eagles at its facilities and pay compensation for these future deaths.

The company also promised to spend up to $27 million on mitigation measures to minimise eagle deaths and injuries.

“The justice department will enforce the nation’s wildlife laws to promote Congress’s purposes, including ensuring sustainable populations of bald and golden eagles, and to promote fair competition for companies that comply,” said Todd Kim, assistant attorney general in the DoJ’s Environment & Natural Resources Division.

In spite of the voluntary agreement, ESI’s parent company NextEra Energy Resources was hardly contrite.

“We disagree with the government’s underlying enforcement policy, which under most circumstances makes building and operating a wind farm into which certain birds may accidentally fly a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) — even when the wind farm was developed and sited in a way that sought to avoid avian wildlife collisions,” said NextEra boss Rebecca Kujawa.

"The reality is building any structure, driving any vehicle, or flying any airplane carries with it a possibility that accidental eagle and other bird collisions may occur as a result of that activity," she continued.

"Unfortunately, the federal government, at odds with many states and a number of federal court decisions, has sought to criminalise unavoidable accidents related to collisions of birds into wind turbines while at the same time failing to address other activities that result in far greater numbers of accidental eagle and other bird mortalities.”

Perhaps the renewables industry has some lessons to learn from the oil industry on the art of public penitence.

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