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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Hot Air on Wind Energy

In promoting his energy plan, Donald Trump made two false claims:

  • Trump said wind farms in the U.S. “kill more than 1 million birds a year.” Reliable data are scarce, but current mean estimates range from 20,000 to 573,000 bird deaths per year.
  • While discussing the number of eagles that are killed by wind turbines, Trump said that “if you shoot an eagle … they want to put you in jail for five years.” Actually, the maximum penalty is a one-year imprisonment.

On May 26, Trump held a press conference and then gave a speech in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he unveiled what he called an “America First” energy plan. In his press conference, Trump said he is “into all types of energy,” but he singled out wind energy as “a problem” because it kills eagles. In his speech, he also spoke generally about birds that are killed by wind farms.

Trump, May 26: The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against seven North Dakota oil companies for the deaths of 28 birds while the administration fast-tracked wind projects that kill more than 1 million birds a year.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “collisions with wind turbines and associated infrastructure (e.g., transmission lines and towers)” pose a threat to wildlife — migratory birds and eagles in particular. But Trump exaggerates the number of bird deaths due to wind farms, and fails to mention that fossil-fuel plants kill far more birds per year than wind farms.

As for the North Dakota lawsuit, Trump is correct that seven oil companies were charged for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The lawsuit stems from the deaths of 28 birds found in oil waste pits from May 6, 2011, to June 20, 2011. According to the Associated Press, Slawson Exploration Company Inc. “accounted for the bulk of the 28 dead birds discovered by federal wildlife officials.” Under a plea agreement, Slawson paid “$12,000 — or $1,000 per bird — to the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,” reported AP.

When Birds Collide

Scientific studies have come up with a wide range of mean estimates concerning bird mortality due to wind farms – from 20,000 to 573,000 bird deaths per year. But no study has estimated that wind farms presently kill 1 million birds a year, as Trump claimed.

To start, the Fish and Wildlife Service “estimates that wind turbines may kill a half a million birds a year.”

SciCHECKsquare_4-e1430162915812K. Shawn Smallwood, an ornithologist who studies the impacts of wind farms on birds, also published a study in the journal Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2013 that estimated 573,000 bird fatalities per year, which included 83,000 raptor fatalities. This was when the country’s capacity for wind energy production was at 51,630 megawatts (MW), he writes in his paper.

However, Smallwood told us by email that these estimates may be old. Since “the last estimates were published, wind energy capacity has increased considerably,” he said. At the end of 2015, the total U.S. installed wind capacity was 73,992 MW, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

In a 2013 paper published in Biological Conservation, Scott Loss and colleagues also write, “The total amount of bird collision mortality at U.S. wind facilities will likely increase with increased wind energy development in the coming decades.” That paper estimates that the number of bird casualties from wind farms could rise to around 1.4 million per year if the Department of Energy meets its goal to have 20 percent of total U.S. electricity generated from wind power by 2030. But only 4.7 percent of U.S. electricity generation came from wind in 2015.

Smallwood told us that “so as far as I’m aware no such estimate [of 1 million bird deaths] exists” today.

In his claim, Trump also misleadingly compared bird deaths at oil drilling operations with those at wind farms. A 2012 Bureau of Land Management memo states that “oil field production skim pits and centralized oilfield wastewater disposal facilities kill an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 birds annually.” This suggests oil production alone (i.e. not including the production of coal or gas) can kill the same, if not more, birds per year than wind farms in the U.S.

Even still, there are greater threats to birds than energy production, including cats and buildings.

A 2013 Nature study by Loss and others estimated that “free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds” in the U.S. annually. But the researchers added, “Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality.”

In another study published in the journal The Condor in 2014, Loss and colleagues also estimated “that between 365 [million] and 988 million birds … are killed annually by building collisions in the U.S., with roughly 56% of mortality at low-rises, 44% at residences, and <1% at high-rises.”

In short, Trump was misleading at best and wrong at worst when he said, “The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against seven North Dakota oil companies for the deaths of 28 birds while the Administration fast-tracked wind projects that kill more than 1 million birds a year.” No studies estimate 1 million bird deaths per year due to wind farms today, and research suggests oil production kills the same, if not more, birds per year than wind farms. Nevertheless, cats remain birds’ greatest threat.

Threats to Eagles

At the press conference held before his energy speech, Trump also claimed “if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles. You know, if you shoot an eagle … they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles … they’re killing them by the hundreds and nothing happens.”

Trump’s claim about the penalty for shooting a bald eagle is false.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits “the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit.” A “take” includes the act shooting, poisoning, wounding and killing an eagle.

FWS states that “civil penalties for violating provisions of the Act” are “a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction.” That means first-time violators are likely to serve little or no time in jail.

For example, in 2009 the State Journal-Register reported that Jerry Kronable, a resident of Illinois, violated “the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, serve one year of probation and forfeit the rifle he used to shoot the eagle.”

Also in 2009, Jesse Barresse, a resident of Florida, was sentenced to six months in federal prison, a year of supervised release and a $500 fine for intentionally shooting and killing a bald eagle.

Likewise, in Alaska in 2000, Richard Hart pleaded guilty to shooting and killing a bald eagle. He was sentenced with two years of probation, a $1,500 fine, 150 hours of community service and alcohol abuse counseling. He also had to give up his hunting privileges for one year and forfeit the rifle he used to shoot the eagle.

But what about his claim that wind turbines “are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles”? We reached out to Trump’s office to ask if he was referring to eagles killed by wind farms nationwide or just in California, but we have yet to hear back.

If Trump means the number of eagles killed by wind turbines per year in California, we refer you to an item by our friends at PolitiFact. They reported that the “best estimate is that about 100 golden eagles die each year from collisions with wind turbine blades [in California]. The data are not perfect, but the people most concerned about the welfare of the eagles do not go along with Trump’s figure.”

Researchers have even less reliable estimates of the number of eagles killed by wind farms nationwide. Joel E. Pagel, a raptor ecologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, and others counted “a minimum of 85 eagle mortalities at 32 wind energy facilities in 10 states during 1997 through 30 June 2012.” But the group also writes in its 2013 Journal of Raptor Research paper that the findings “likely underestimate, perhaps substantially, the number of eagles killed at wind facilities in the United States.”

This underestimation is due to the fact that “assessments of eagle mortality at commercial-scale and/or private wind energy facilities are either seldom conducted or in some cases not made available for public review,” the authors argue.

Pagel and colleagues’ study didn’t include eagle deaths at the Altamount Pass Wind Resource Area in California, for which there are better data. At the APWRA, Smallwood estimated 67 golden eagle deaths per year in a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2010.

But he also told Politifact that the estimate should be much lower today because old turbines were “replaced by larger turbines that are being more carefully sited to reduce eagle fatalities.”

According to the FWS, “Eagles appear to be particularly susceptible” to colliding with wind turbines, compared with other birds. Why? “Many of the areas that are promising sources of wind energy unfortunately also overlap with eagle habitats, and eagles are at risk because their senses tend to be focused upon the ground as they look for prey, rather than staring ahead to see spinning blades,” reported National Geographic.

Trump falsely claimed shooting an eagle leads to five years in prison. The penalty is a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment for the first offense. Trump also misleadingly said that wind turbines “are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles.” It’s possible, but scientists don’t have good estimates for eagle deaths at wind farms across the U.S. because of underreporting and a lack of access to data.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.