In vast areas of the American West, the sounds of wind, birds, and weather have been the dominant voices for thousands of years. The gentle rumble of pickup trucks, trailing plumes of dust, pass through this open landscape, threads of human activity, men and women working their ranches under the big sky. Dogs bark, livestock call, local sounds, rarely audible to neighbors, who are often over the horizon.
A new wave of energy development has introduced new sounds to this pastoral world. It began with natural gas pumps, their rhythmic pulse rolling across nearby lands, and progressed more recently to coalbed methane wells, along with their associated compressor stations, which send a roar across the rolling plains twenty-four hours a day. In the next few years, wind turbines are likely to sprout across much of the west, as ranchers seek added revenue to bolster their ability to stay on the land. Each of these new energy developments has been greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and reticence by locals, the jobs and revenue balanced against the intrusions on their solitude. While the noise impacts of these new activities are rarely the central concern, their impacts on the soundscape are real. In this section of AE.org, we take a look at the new soundscapes of the west.
"I got a huge compressor station two miles from my place. That thing runs 24 hours a day, and so do the company trucks. There’s no peace and quiet here anymore."
New Mexico rancher
BLM Releases Final Programmatic EIS for Western Wind Development - Culminating a multi-year process of agency planning and public comment, in early summer 2005 the BLM released its final Environmental Impact Statement governing wind devleopment in the American West. The plan will amend management plans on BLM lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, and is designed to offer comprehensive enough overall guidance and analysis of impacts to allow individual projects to proceed with less stringent environmental studies. Wind is often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel, and indeed it is. While some consider wind farms to be a visual blight on the land, others see a beauty and grace to the spinning turbines. Impacts on birds and bats are often a concern, as is noise, especially persistent low-frequency vibrations, which some people seem to be very sensitive to. The industry claims that new motor and turbine designs are reducing the noise impacts to negligible levels; as a new generation of turbines sprouts across the west, local monitoring and feedback will be crucial to assuring that siting of these farms minimize their noise impacts on neighbors.
Wind energy has also met resistance in the mountains of Appalachia, where turbines sprout along scenic ridgetops important to wildlife, and in coastal areas where offshore wind farms are planned.
AEI Special Report: Wind Energy Noise Impacts
Noise from industrial wind turbines causes problems for neighbors in perhaps 20% of wind farms. This report summarizes what is known about turbine noise, including atmospheric and other influences on noise propagation. Includes links to major research reports on the topic, and to government, industry, and NGO websites. Also available at the above link: PDF version of the full report, an 8-page version great for introducing the issues to local planning boards, and a June 2009 Powerpoint presentation.
BLM Wind Energy Info
Wind Energy EIS Public Information Center [WEBSITE]
Annotated Guide to the Final Programmatic EIS [WEBSITE]
Executive Summary of the Programmatic EIS [DOWNLOAD EXECUTIVE SUMMARY(pdf)]
Sections related to noise:
Impacts and Mitigation (see page 20-27) Notes that turbine noise is more apt to be audible at lower wind speeds, since higher winds raise ambient noise levels high enough to mask turbine noise. Modest-wind turbine noise is expected to be at ambient levels at distances of 2000 feet (600m) or more. Substation noise is expected to be below ambient at distances of over 500m. [DOWNLOAD CHAPTER 5 (pdf)]
Affected Environment (see pages 8-12) Covers basic sound propagation and noise ordinance info. Projects that increases of sound of 3-6 dB could cause some community response, and 10dB (doubling of noise) would likely cause significant effects; however, they also make the questionable assumption that since ambient noise can change by over 10dB (largely due to wind and weather), that changes of this magnitude due to turbines would be acceptible. [DOWNLOAD CHAPTER 4(pdf)]
Analysis of Proposed Action and Alternatives (see page 17) Assumes that noise impacts will be minimal, since most wind farms and turbines will be more than 2000 feet from residences or communities. [DOWNLOAD CHAPTER 6(pdf)]
WindAction - Compiles nearly every news report, governmental policy (natoinal to local), and scientific study addressing the wind energy development, both on land and in the ocean. Primarily anti-wind in orientation; has good noise coverage, but not noise-centered. [WEBSITE]
SafeWind - Wind farms, wildlife, and the environment. Includes news updates and resources on both land-based and offshore wind farms. [WEBSITE]
Citizens for Responsible Wind Power - West Virginia based citizens group [WEBSITE]
Heartland Institute Report on West Virginia Wind Farms [WEBSITE]
BWEA Fact Sheet on Noise - British trade group site [WEBSITE] [FACT SHEET]
AWEA Wind Web Tutorial on Noise - American trade group site [WEBSITE] [TUTORIAL]
Yes2Wind - A coalition of environmental organizations (Greenpeace, Freinds of the Earth, WWF) advocating increased use of wind energy in the UK. Includes page with links to info on existing and proposed wind farms, with contacts for making comments. [WEBSITE]
Debunking Noise Myths Page - Before construction of the Scottish wind farms studied, 12% of people living near the sites thought that the turbines would cause a noise nuisance, but after construction, when people had experience of the wind farm operating, only 1% thought they were noisy. [READ PAGE]
National Wind Coordinating Committee - Consensus-based collaborative group including representatives of industry, environmental organizations, and government agencies [WEBSITE]
AEI Spotlight Report on the noise impacts of Coalbed Methane development in the American West. CBM well pumps and compressor stations are being installed on ranch land throughout the west, with significant noise impacts on ranchers and wildlife. [GO THERE]
In 2007 and 2009, AEI Executive Director Jim Cummings was invited to give plenary presentation at the Alberta energy industry's biannual Spring Noise Conference. Both times, he was a bit of an oddball presence, offering a "big picture" perspective that, while recognizing the truly leading-edge provisions in Alberta's oil and gas noise regulations, urged participants to continue to work toward sound control practices that could let local residents enjoy unspoiled rural soundcapes. You can see the 2009 presentation as a PDF, or read this AEInews.org blog post on the conference.
High Country News CBM Archives - Articles published over the past several years on the growing impact of CBM development in the west. [WEBSITE]
Oil and Gas Exploration
The search for oil and gas reserves begins with the use of "thumper trucks," which send loud sounds into the earth and records the returning echoes. This seismic exploration is analagous to the seismic surveys employed at sea using airguns. Concerns have been raised about the effects of these sounds on wildlife, especially ground-dwellers such as prairie dogs, but very little research has been done.
Terry Tempest Williams 2002 NYTimes Op-Ed piece on thumper trucks [READ ARTICLE]
High Country News article on oil and gas exploration in Utah; good overview [READ ARTICLE]
Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists - Industry trade group [WEBSITE]
International Association of Geophysical Contractors - Industry trade group, has various environmental standards reports available [WEBSITE]
International Association of Oil and Gas Producers - Industry trade group, some terrestrial environmental info, but more on offshore issues [WEBSITE]
Center for Native Ecosystems - Environmental advocacy group that presses the BLM to avoid leases in biologically rich areas [WEBSITE]
Dogwood Initiative - Canadian group working for sustainble use of land [WEBSITE]
Oil and Gas Accountability Project - Many resources. Integrating with the Earthworks website, with more resources, including landowner guides [OGAP WEBSITE] [EARTHWORKS WEBSITE]
Who Owns the West? - Detailed web based overview of oil and gas development from the Environmental Working Group [WEBSITE]