United States

United States

Rollback on energy's bird kills reveals Trump's wind hypocrisy

"I never understood wind. I know windmills very much. They're noisy. They kill the birds. You want to see a bird graveyard? Go under a windmill someday. You'll see more birds than you've ever seen in your life."

You don’t have to be eagle-eyed to spot the void between Trump’s rants and his government’s actions (pic: Andy Morffew/flickr)
You don’t have to be eagle-eyed to spot the void between Trump’s rants and his government’s actions (pic: Andy Morffew/flickr)

That was another of Donald Trump's bizarre rants, in this case to young conservatives at a Florida meeting this winter.

The current US president may have difficulty understanding his own administration, even though he has famously had a bee in his bonnet about wind power ever since fighting — and losing — a high-profile battle to halt a major offshore wind project near his luxury golf course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Yet, despite Trump’s loathing of the technology, his administration, through the Department of the Interior (DOI), is rushing to greenlight leasing for billions of dollars of wind development off the north-east and mid-Atlantic coasts.

Apparently, the government income raised by auctions for the offshore wind development areas is more than welcome.

Another Trump-wind irony has so far flown under the radar: his administration has quietly launched a 45-day public comment period, until mid-March, for a new rule proposing to stop punishing all industry — principally oil and gas, but including wind — for killing birds "incidentally".

The argument is that businesses ought to be able to operate without fear of overly onerous regulation.

Under the proposed new law, only companies that actually intend to kill birds would face prosecution. Trump’s apparent concern over "windmill" birdkill clearly doesn’t run very deep.

Currently, the wind industry must adhere to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, often spending multi-millions of dollars on avoiding bird nesting areas and flyways.

Radar may be deployed during operation. Or projects may agree to curtail power generation when birds feed.

Rare condors in southern California wear radio collars nearby wind farms can detect. Electric lines have been bird-proofed for decades.

Wind projects that fall foul of the law have occasionally faced steep fines. In an unprecedented prosecution in 2013, Duke Energy Renewables was fined $1 million for the deaths of 14 protected eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms.

Business as usual

However, the new rollback would not actually change much in practice.

The Trump government has been hands-off on the birds issue ever since the DOI released a legal opinion in 2017 saying that previous administrations had been interpreting the migratory bird law too widely, and that only intentional killing was wrong.

The current administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking simple precautionary measures, and federal wildlife officials have all but stopped investigating most deaths, according to the New York Times.

Still, wind developers are hardly going to rush ahead with scant regard to birds — if only because the optics would be awful.

Even if Trump is re-elected in November for another four years, the rollback is unlikely to stick long-term. With wind projects now lasting up to 30 years, the risk of planning differently is just not worth it.

No one disputes that killing birds is wrong, but, remember another Trump-era irony: far more birds are killed by glass-covered buildings and skyscrapers of the sort that he boasts about constructing than by wind turbines.

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