Be careful out there, birds. Photograph by Ken James/Bloomberg
Be careful out there, birds. Photograph by Ken James/Bloomberg

One energy company has an ugly accident and lots of birds are killed. It pays a huge fine and gets slammed in the news media. Another energy company routinely kills plenty of birds and gets off scot-free.

A double standard? It sure looks that way. Or at least it did before last week, when the U.S. Justice Department settled criminal charges with Duke Energy Corp. for operating wind farms that slaughtered hundreds of birds, leading the energy producer to pay $1 million in fines and restitution. Although oil companies have often been charged with killing birds as a result of spills, it was the first time a wind-energy producer was penalized for deaths of protected birds.

Maybe the Feds are beginning to recognize that the disparate treatment between oil producers and clean-energy generators was unfair. Given that wind farms seem to function like giant food processors for birds, as well as bats, what's puzzling is that it took so long.

It's easy to understand why the government has few qualms about beating up on Big Oil, even though we're all addicted to its products. Oil producers punch holes in the ground or excavate in remote, pristine places that most of us will never visit but feel we should protect. The pipelines to transport unrefined oil can threaten water supplies, and no one wants one in his or her backyard. And when we burn oil-based fuel it fouls the air and contributes to climate change.

Then there are the accidents, such as BP Plc's 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. After contaminating a swath of the Gulf of Mexico, the company paid more than $40 billion in compensation, cleanup costs and fines. It had to endure the jibes of President Barack Obama, who said he wanted to "kick ass" over the spill. And the U.K.-based company is still walking around with a reputational taint that requires it to spend a bundle on feel-good TV ads.

Now whatever environmental damage wind farms cause may not be on the same scale as the Deepwater debacle. But for years U.S. policy seemed to be that the impact of wind farms either wasn't worthy of notice or was a price worth paying.

Why? One reason might be because the Obama administration has made renewables a centerpiece of its green energy initiative. That's a valid policy choice. Finding ways to reduce fossil-fuel use makes sense on many levels, from reducing air pollution to lowering U.S. dependence on crude oil imported from countries that are either unstable or hostile.

Moreover, wind farms don't inspire the same visceral revulsion that seems to come with an oil refinery spewing fumes into the air, much less a well blowout pumping sludge into the sea. Seen from afar, there's something appealing about turbines spinning in the breeze, providing what looks like endless, cheap energy.

The truth is a bit different. In terms of their foot print on the land, wind farms are among the most disruptive power producers. Various estimates place the amount of land affected by a wind farm that generates on gigawatt at as much as 100 times more than for a natural-gas fired power plant.

As for the impact on avian life, environmentalists for years have raised a fuss about how many birds and bats are killed. Though the turbines may seem to be turning slowly, at their tips the blades are traveling as fast as 170 mph. This kills almost 600,000 birds and 900,000 bats each year.

Birds of prey tend to be particularly vulnerable: They fly head down, scanning the ground for quarry. Among the charges against Duke Energy was that two of its wind farms in Wyoming killed 14 golden eagles as well as other protected birds.

Duke promised to come up with plans for reducing bird deaths, ranging from hiring human spotters to using radar to detect when birds get too close, leading the turbines to temporarily stop. New rules also make it harder to build wind farms in locations where raptors hunt.
That's all for the good. More important is that federal regulators in charge of protecting wildlife have stopped treating wind farms as if they are immune from the rules that govern the rest of the energy industry. It's an overdue recognition that no matter how it's done, generating power is never clean.

(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)