Researcher’s methodology found far more impacts from oil-and-gas drilling than from wind turbines. A Wyoming wildlife biologist doesn’t completely buy the study’s conclusions.
Under the headline “Sharing the Skies,” the Economist in its Jan. 13 issue reported that a new study had found wind turbines are much friendlier to birds than oil-and-gas drilling.
The researcher, Erik Katovich, an economist at the University of Geneva, had studied Christmas Bird Counts conducted by Audubon volunteers across the United States from 2000 to 2020. It was a time of many new wind farms but also many more oil and gas wells.
Production of shale grass produced by hydraulic fracturing of rocks rose from 37 million cubic meters in 2007 to 740 million cubic meters in 2020.
Results show that the onset of shale oil and gas production reduces subsequent bird population counts by 15% even after adjusting for location, weather, counting effort and anthropogenic land-use changes.
“Wind turbines do not have any measurable impact on bird counts,” said the abstract.
The Economist, examining the report published in Environmental Science & Technology, noted that Katovich’s finding held true even when he looked specifically at hawks, eagles, and other large birds.
Writing in his newsletter for the Los Angeles Times, Sammy Roth talked with two scientists with the National Audubon Society. They say that Katovich’s methodology probably resulted in underestimating the impact of turbines. Prior research had found that wind farms are much more likely to kill or injure birds that spend time right near the turbines, they said. But they thought it sounded about right otherwise.
In Wyoming, Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist who leads the Western Watersheds Project, was more critical of the methodology. First, the data collected by volunteers was imperfect, plus he had not analyzed the number of birds of each species recorded at each location – a crucial measure of biodiversity.
Molvar also pointed out that wind farms and fossil fuel extraction can affect birds in different ways. Wind farms are more likely to kill birds than displace them. And some birds are more sensitive to wind farms than others.
Katovich, after hearing Molvar’s criticism, told the LA Times’ Roth he found them thoughtful and informed. But he said that the same way his study could be missing some of the damage to bird populations from wind energy could be underestimating the harm from oil and gas, too.
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