In his recent climate change speech, President Barack Obama once again pushed for more wind energy. “The plan I’m announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun,” the president said. “Today, I’m directing the Interior Department to green-light enough private renewable energy capacity on public plans to power more than 6 million homes by 2020.”
The latest wind power plan is likely to cost taxpayers a lot of money and cost a lot of birds their lives. Wind turbines have a significant impact on this nation’s birds, especially birds of prey and other large species. The American Bird Conservancy even thinks it’s possible the golden eagle will end up on the endangered species list because so many are being killed by wind turbines. In fact, the Obama administration is so fixated on wind power that it recently gave a California-based wind company an exemption from prosecution if a turbine kills a California condor, one of the rarest birds in the world, with only around 400 alive today. And the administration is hoping to grant a similar exemption to all wind farms along the 1,500-mile Texas to North Dakota migratory corridor for the whooping crane, another of the world’s rarest birds.
Wind turbines kill around 600,000 birds annually according to a recently published scholarly article in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. But the number is likely higher. Consider that many wind companies do not have to make bird kill data public. The federal government has resisted releasing data under the absurd claim that doing so would divulge industry trade secrets. Furthermore, the industry has little incentive to publicize negative information about its bird kills, especially since the federal government has clearly indicated the industry has a free pass to kill birds.
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, killing one bird carries fines ranging from $15,000 to $500,000 and prison terms of six months to two years. Yet, a recent Associated Press investigation found the federal government has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm owner for violating federal law by killing birds.
“What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces [with a wind turbine], that is OK,” Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent, told the AP.
In order to double the number of wind turbines, President Obama plan calls for several things. First, the Interior Department will “green-light” wind farms on federal lands.
Second, the president is giving wind firms a guaranteed buyer that is not known for hunting for the best prices – the federal government. “Your federal government will consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within the next seven years,” Obama proclaimed. Such a mandate would give the wind industry a massive gift in the form of a steady stream of taxpayer money.
Third, the feds will continue to subsidize the wind industry through a series of tax credits, subsidies and loan guarantees. Reason magazine columnist and Mercatus Center Economist Veronique de Rugy found, “Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, annual wind subsidies grew from $476 million to nearly $5 billion.”
And by not fining or prosecuting wind companies for killing birds, the Obama administration’s friendly policies provide the industry with other hidden benefits. Wind companies avoid paying fines that other energy companies would face if they killed birds; they avoid hefty legal fees that companies incur when prosecuted by the feds; and they are allowed to build wind farms in areas others would not be allowed into.
Implicit in President Obama’s plan is the administration’s very clear signal to the wind industry: go ahead and carry on killing birds because the federal agencies that are supposed to be enforcing laws against killing them will give you a pass. The wind industry is acutely attuned to the signals it receives from the federal government. In turn, federal agencies are acutely attuned to, and eager to mold their behavior to conform with, the signals they receive from their boss. They know President Obama has given a very clear sign that it will continue to be business as usual for the wind industry, which isn’t good news for America’s birds.
Brian Seasholes is a research fellow at the Reason Foundation. This column first appeared at Forbes.com.