Plonk a collection of colossal, whirling blades in any location, and it's practically guaranteed that some birds will die.

Yet many of the strongest backers of offshore wind farms are wildlife advocates. The National Audubon Society and other conservation groups say planet-warming fuels like oil and gas harm far more birds than wind and other climate-friendly energy sources ever will.

But their alarm bells went off when Louisiana floated the unusual idea of allowing wind turbines in the shallow waters hugging the coast – an area teeming with sea life and dozens of bird species. Wind farms would turn these rich ecosystems into “lethal minefields” for birds, a group of retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents warned state regulators.

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“Less than 20 years ago, our Louisiana state bird, the brown pelican was listed as endangered,” the group wrote in a letter to the state Department of Energy and Natural Resources. “What a sad day it would be if our Louisiana state bird were to be put on the endangered list again. For that mater, what a sad day for Louisiana if any species of migratory birds became so rare and would need to be listed as endangered due to the presence of wind turbines in their flight path.”

The letter was one of dozens expressing concerns just before the DENR approved agreements in December for the first two wind farms in state-managed waters, which extend three miles from the coast. DENR granted nearly 60,000 acres off Cameron Parish to the Danish firm Vestas and just over 6,100 acres near Port Fourchon to Mitsubishi-owned Diamond Offshore Wind.

Wildlife concerns will be addressed “when and if” the companies apply for permits, said DENR spokesperson Patrick Courreges. A project’s permit could be blocked if the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries or other environmental regulators object, he said.

Both companies pledged to consider wildlife impacts when designing and operating their wind farms.

“Developing a wind farm near the shore - or anywhere - should be approached carefully,” Diamond Offshore said in a statement. A project would need to undergo “rigorous environmental permitting processes” and up to three years of studies, including ones focused on potential harm to birds, the company said.

Conservation groups are much less concerned about wind farms in deeper, federally-managed waters, where there’s a lower density of wildlife, both above and below the waves.?

“The nearshore siting of turbines is unprecedented in the United States and rare in Europe, as it often poses greater risks to wildlife and habitats,” Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation and five other conservation groups wrote in a letter to DENR. The groups noted the close overlap of proposed wind development areas with habitat the American Bird Conservancy considers critically important for threatened red knots and piping plovers, and several other bird species.?

The U.S.’s burgeoning offshore wind industry is almost entirely focused on federal waters off the East Coast. The country’s first wind farm was built in Rhode Island’s state-managed waters, but its location is 16 miles from the mainland. And unlike Louisiana, Rhode Island approved the location only after an extensive environmental review that offered assurances that turbine heights and locations would cause little trouble for birds and other wildlife.

“Louisiana has it backwards,” said Andrew Wilson of the Orleans Audubon Society. Rather than let wildlife assessments help determine wind farm locations, Louisiana is leaving the initial siting to companies.

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Piping plovers spend winters along the Louisiana coast.

“Cutting corners, as is currently proposed, will lead to environmental catastrophe (and) potentially stall or halt the project,” he said.

Wilson hinted that a weak or flawed process could make the state and wind energy developers vulnerable to lawsuits. He pointed to Danish wind energy giant Orsted recently dropping plans to build a wind farm off the New Jersey coast after its proposal drew legal challenges over potential harm to whales and sea turtles during construction, and migratory birds once the blades started spinning.

“These experiences from other states should serve as a cautionary tale and certainly be instructive for Louisiana,” Wilson said.

Migratory birds are also a major concern in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 2 billion birds cross the Gulf each year on a veritable avian highway that follows the Mississippi River. Turbines far out at sea will likely take a toll, but shifting to renewable energy sources is worth the price, some conservationists say.

“Offshore wind power is a critically needed climate change solution,” the National Audubon Society told DENR in a letter. “We have long advocated for policies and actions to bring offshore wind projects to scale in an environmentally protective manner.”

How a wind farm works - animated graphic

Warming temperatures from the burning of oil and other fossil fuels is forcing birds to migrate farther, destroying habitat, supercharging diseases, and even altering the sizes and shapes of birds’ bodies, according to the conservancy.

Bird advocates also note that there are worse threats than wind turbines. House cats, for example, are blamed for killing about 2.4 billion birds each year. Automobiles, pesticides and office tower windows take out millions more. Collisions with the Gulf’s oil and gas platforms kills about 200,000 birds each year, a Louisiana State University study found.?

Wilson urged DENR to take a more proactive role in determining where wind farms would harm the fewest birds. He pointed to remote sensing technology and acoustic monitoring devices that could identify busy migratory pathways. Satellite-linked transmitters could also be placed on individual birds to give real-time monitoring of key species, he said.

Conservationists say Louisiana need only look to Rhode Island to see how this process can be done. Before green lighting the Block Island wind farm, Rhode Island required a broad-based environmental analysis and developed a management plan “that has been lauded as a national model,” according to the wildlife federation.

Environmental concerns are also a focal point of the process federal regulators use to designate offshore wind lease areas.?

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Birders search for spring’s migratory birds during the St. Bernard Bird Festival in May 2017.

But DENR doesn’t have the money or obligation to undertake such initiatives, Courreges said.

“We’re not set up the same way,” he said. “We’re not budgeted or authorized to do ahead-of-time research.”

While not required to do so, Diamond Offshore is already soliciting input from conservation groups. The company is also considering technology that could minimize the use of lights on its turbines, potentially making them less attractive to birds.

While these are positive steps, conservation groups argue that Louisiana should take the lead in determining the most effective strategies for safeguarding birds, rather than rely on companies.

Wilson worries that wildlife concerns won’t get serious consideration until after a wind farm’s planning is well underway, with time and money already invested in a particular site or wind farm design.

Under that scenario, any environmental impacts will become a mere afterthought, and addressed only with a “Band-Aid” approach, he said.

This work is supported with a grant funded by the Walton Family Foundation and administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Tristan Baurick: tbaurick@theadvocate.com; on Twitter: @tristanbaurick.

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