Normally, dead whales are a good way to bring environmentalists together — but not in New Jersey.
Instead, a recent stranding of whales in the Northeast has exposed schisms among activists, energised Republicans, and threatened to disrupt one of President Joe Biden’s key energy ambitions.
At least nine whales have been stranded on beaches in New Jersey and New York since December. The fatalities are occurring as pre-construction work on offshore wind farms, which are an important part of the nation’s and New Jersey’s climate change plan.
There is no evidence linking wind turbines with whale deaths. However, Clean Ocean Action, a 40-year-old non-profit, feels the two events occurring at the same time may be more than a coincidence.
The accusation, whether true or not, has sparked a fresh political discussion.
The organisation, which has been one of the few to criticise offshore wind, is exploiting the whale deaths to call for a halt to offshore wind construction until officials can establish out what is going on. Its message is getting out.
Clean Ocean Action has formed an unlikely alliance with conservative media figure Tucker Carlson, six Republican congressmen from New Jersey’s coastal districts, and Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), co-chair of the congressional offshore wind caucus and its sole Republican member.
Carlson is now airing a programme titled “The Biden Whale Extinction.” In mid-January, he referred to wind energy as “the DDT of our time,” and a guest on the show said, without elaborating, that wind developers’ survey ships were “carpet bombing the ocean floor with loud sound” that would confuse whales.
Van Drew has asked Gov. Phil Murphy to halt offshore wind development in New Jersey.
“Since Governor Murphy proposed offshore wind projects off the coast of New Jersey, I have been vehemently opposed to any activity moving forward until research revealed the impacts these projects would have on our environment and the fishing industry,” Van Drew, whose South Jersey district includes several coastal counties, said in a statement.
Murphy, like the president, has prioritised offshore wind in his clean energy ambitions.
At least one moderate Democrat is also expressing reservations. Vin Gopal, a state senator from New Jersey’s coastal Monmouth County, said he is “extremely concerned” about any links between wind and whales.
The political difficulty couldn’t have come at a worse moment for the offshore wind sector, which is already struggling to fund wind farms like Ocean Wind 1, New Jersey’s first.
Biden has set a national goal of 30 gigatonnes of offshore wind energy by 2030, which is enough to power 10 million households, and Murphy has set a state goal of 11 gigatonnes by 2040. To meet these targets, developers in New Jersey and other states must fast deploy hundreds of massive wind turbines miles off the shore. So yet, just one large project in the region has broken ground: the South Fork wind farm in New York.
Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action, stated that she has no proof to link whale deaths to offshore wind, other than the fact that there is an unusual number of whales dying on beaches and an unprecedented quantity of offshore wind construction is occurring. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there is no link.
Zipf’s group has long maintained that the federal government has underinvested in monitoring new wind infrastructure planned for the ocean and is unsure of the impact sonic mapping of the ocean floor and increased ship traffic will have.
Wind enthusiasts like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters in New Jersey believe the connection with whales is unfounded and should not be used to halt the growth of sustainable energy. They claim that an already-warming ocean is a known concern to whales, and that clean electricity from wind turbines could help slow climate change.
Last week, federal authorities from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management aided offshore wind proponents by stating that there is no evidence that construction would worsen or compound whale deaths. Offshore wind businesses’ sound surveys, they claim, have not been related to stranded whales.
Since 2016, BOEM has been tracking an unprecedented number of whale deaths and discovered that almost 40% of the whales investigated were hit by a ship or became entangled in fishing gear. These types of hazards are not new, but they may grow more widespread when whales track their prey closer to shore, possibly as a result of climate change.
There are no wind farms off the coast of New Jersey yet, but sound studies of the seafloor have been undertaken.
Concerns that sonic mapping would interfere with whale navigation are exaggerated, according to Erica Staaterman, an expert with the federal government’s Center for Marine Acoustics. During a conference call with reporters, Staaterman stated that there is a “quite significant difference” between the relatively brief and targeted sound mapping used by offshore wind and the extremely loud noises used by oil and gas companies to take measurements down beneath the bottom.
She didn’t say it explicitly, but there’s a political point to be made here: if conservative media is so concerned about whales, why are they hostile to offshore wind but supportive of offshore drilling?
Because it is unclear why the whales are dying, the lack of data is being used to support the absence of regulatory oversight.
“It doesn’t appear to me that they have performed very much review of anything, which is what we’re calling for,” Zipf said after the federal regulators’ media briefing.
Other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have been working hard to dispel the myth that offshore wind kills whales. At the same time, they are attempting to expose hypocrisy among offshore wind opponents.
“I wouldn’t advocate for a halt to commercial shipping because I know it’s unreasonable. It’s business. “I know it’s not going to end,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, in an interview. “As a result, I find it ridiculous to ask for a halt or embargo on offshore wind – which will save us all.”
Last year, the Port of New York and New Jersey saw roughly 3,000 ships enter and go, a figure that greatly undercounts total ocean activity in the region and dwarfs the number of vessels associated with offshore wind.
Murphy’s offshore wind ambitions in New Jersey are already facing obstacles due to fundamental economics.