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Dr. Daniel Sutter: Of wind and whales

Whales have been dying off the East Coast of the United States near where offshore wind turbines are being or about to be built. The North Atlantic Right Whale faces extinction, with only perhaps 340 left in the wild. Should endangered species take precedence over energy production?

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service denies a link between whale deaths and wind turbines. A recent investigation by the independent news organization Public, however, identifies correlation between whale deaths and boat traffic and sonar activity associated with construction.

Whale deaths have increased sharply since 2017, about when turbine construction began. This constitutes correlation, but correlation does not prove causality. Sonar and construction may be pushing whales into high traffic boat lanes, producing more collisions with boats. NOAA acknowledges trauma from boats in many whale deaths.

Marine biology is not economics, so I will not take a definitive position on the causation question. For full disclosure, I have previously received funding from NOAA for my research so I may have a bias here. I believe that additional research is warranted.

I instead wish to consider whether whales should trump energy development. We might think that 1973’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) settled this question and should protect the Right Whales. The ESA seemingly unambiguously prohibits the taking of endangered and threatened species. But this protection is not ironclad. The federal government must declare critical habitat for a species and decide whether actions disturb habitat. Consequently, species protection depends on bureaucrats.

Construction projects sometimes proceed with modifications. The NMFS has set sound limits for sonar which Public’s reporting contends are being violated.

Damage to the environment or harm to species is almost always a by-product of productive activity (including hunting as food production). We live in a world of scarcity, meaning that we want more goods and services than can be produced. Market prices for scarce resources make it costly to burn a rain forest or kill whales just for fun.

Habitat loss is the major threat for many endangered species. People use land for agriculture, logging, or to build beach resorts, depriving species of breeding or hunting grounds. These impacts are unintended and sometimes initially unrecognized.

Let’s focus now on offshore wind and Right Whales. I hold human flourishing as my standard of value. Consequently, I believe the ESA is misguided. Humans may impact nature to survive and thrive; if this happens to drive species to extinction, that is acceptable.

We can and do choose to impose on ourselves to improve the lives of animals, but these choices should entirely reflect our preferences. There may be little consistency in our choices of plants and animals to protect. The bald eagle somehow became a national symbol and Americans chose to protect this species. What we label animal rights are ultimately human sensibilities.

I would not put whales ahead of energy. But human survival and thriving does not require offshore wind; climate change does not pose an existential threat. If you doubt this, read the IPCC reports summarizing the academic literature. Humanity could adapt to an additional two degrees Celsius warming. Humans at the subsistence level survived much greater climate changes during and after the last glacial period.

Given that fossil fuels do not threaten extinction, I agree with Alex Epstein that we should ensure human flourishing in the manner least disruptive to the environment.

Wind and solar have enormous environmental footprints. Both require enormous land areas, kill thousands of birds and bats annually, use gigantic quantities of rater earth metals, and result in huge quantities of toxic waste.

The key to meeting the energy needs for human flourishing with minimal environmental disruption is energy density, as Mr. Epstein argues. Wind and solar are very low density compared to fossil fuels, with nuclear power even better. The energy transition is largely a plan to enrich opportunistic profiteers driven by fear of a climate apocalypse. We should not kill whales merely to enrich politically connected “clean” energy companies when lower cost and lower impact energy sources can support human flourishing.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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