Efforts to stop wind turbines off the Atlantic coast have a new mascot: the whale.
But those most vocal about their concern have been silent in recent years as whale strandings surged along the East Coast. Wind energy supporters and whale advocates say these groups and politicians appear to be using whales as pawns.
A Jan. 30 letter signed by 12 New Jersey mayors and a congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), called for a moratorium on all offshore wind activity. Conservation advocates say the letter spreads speculation when scientists aren’t convinced whale deaths and offshore wind development are connected – and there’s good reason to believe they are not.
Whales and wind emerged in the headlines in January after a press conference Jan. 9 by two groups, Clean Ocean Action and Protect Our Coast New Jersey. They blamed the so-called “unprecedented” discovery of six dead whales along New Jersey and New York coasts on early-stage geotechnical surveys mapping the sea-floor for wind farms.
They advanced a festering concern that sound beams used in such surveys could harm nearby whales. Conservation groups and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management generally believe that’s nonsense, in part because the type of sound used for wind turbine placement is much weaker than the stronger signals regularly used for other purposes such as oil and gas exploration.
The cause has also been taken up by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who has aired a series of segments in which he called wind turbines DDT for whales.
Long-time whale advocacy groups aren’t buying it.
“It’s just a cynical disinformation campaign,” said Greenpeace’s oceans director John Hocevar. “It doesn’t seem to worry them that it’s not based in any kind of evidence.”
Scientists who study whale strandings say there’s no known link between wind turbines and whale deaths, although they continue to probe what role, if any, wind development has in whale deaths.
So far, evidence for a link is little more than speculation. Experts point to the United Kingdom, which has 2,652 offshore wind turbines and where experts say autopsies have not found a connection between dead whales on their shores and the turbines off them.
Gib Brogan, a campaign director with Oceana, an international ocean advocacy group, said those opposed to wind power are using a spate of whale deaths in the area as an opportunity.
“It seems that the connection between the whale strandings and wind activities is a convenient line of opposition to development of offshore wind in the mid-Atlantic,” he said.
Some New Jersey politicians opposed offshore wind before whale death concerns
Of the 12 mayors who signed the letter, nine are Republican and one Democrat. In two towns, elections by law are non-partisan. All represent small Jersey Shore beach towns.
A USA TODAY review of public statements found at least two of the mayors had previously spoken critically of offshore wind, a key part of the nation’s renewable energy plan with a goal of producing enough electricity to power 10 million homes by decade’s end.
“We’ve been 100% against this project from Day One,” said Joe Mancini, the mayor of Long Beach Township, said of the several wind farms in the proposal and research stage off the New Jersey shore.
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Mancini’s concerns are numerous: He says the proposed wind farms will destroy fishing and hurt tourism. The turbines are unsightly and the energy they produce is too expensive, he claims. “I don’t care how far out they put them,” he said.
Instead, he supports nuclear power as the solution to creating carbon-neutral energy.
In the borough of Deal, Mayor Sam Cohen signed the letter but when contacted by USA TODAY expressed concern over possible dangers to birds. “I have no idea how these wind turbines affect whales, but I would be interested to see a study on how these turbines affect fish and wildlife,” he told USA TODAY.
Don Cabrera, a signer and mayor of the borough of Wildwood Crest, said he’s opposed to “tampering with our ecosystem and ocean floor and possibly harming marine and other life.” He believes sustainable energy should come from land-based wind turbines and solar farms.
He’s also not convinced the turbines, which he says would harm his town, won’t be visible from land.
New Jersey mayors have history of silence on whale deaths
Rep. Smith, who has previously supported wind power, introduced a bill in 2019 to ban seismic airgun use, primarily by oil and gas companies, to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other marine life. He has also supported a ban on offshore oil drilling.
However a USA TODAY review of news coverage of the mayors found no previous public concern for whale deaths, despite high rates of strandings dating back to 2017.
That year, a total of 78 whales died along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada and 59 in 2018, 2019 and 2020, NOAA data shows.
“I don’t know what to make of it that these people and these organizations that have not had a long-standing interest in whale conservation are becoming vocal opponents of offshore wind using whales as their vehicle,” said Brogan.
“Groups opposed to clean energy projects spread baseless misinformation that has been debunked by scientists and experts,” said JC Sandberg, chief advocacy officer with the American Clean Power Association, a renewable energy trade group.
“We have always worked alongside the environmental community to protect marine life and follow rigorous standards when developing projects. The recent whale strandings are tragic but there is no evidence that these incidents have anything to do with offshore wind activity,” he said.
The issue had made for strange bedfellows.
The Jan. 9 news conference featured Clean Action Ocean, a 39-year-old group founded to fight beach dumping as well as Protect Our Coast New Jersey. Founded in 2021, that group’s money is managed by the Caesar Rodney Institute, which has received funding from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
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Conservative organizations or oil and gas interests appear to be using whales as pawns in efforts to undermine off-shore wind projects, said Leah Stokes, a professor of political science at the University of Santa Barbara.
The tactic has been used to fight the land-based wind installations, the Inflation Reduction Act and now offshore wind, said Stokes, whose book “Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States” researched anti-wind networks.
“They’re taking those legitimate environmental concerns and trying to manipulate the conversation by using topics that matter to the environmental movement,” she said.
The same tactic is used when those opposed to wind energy focused on bird deaths, which isn’t their actual concern, she said.
“Folks may have other reasons) they don’t like turbines, such as home prices or their own financial interests, but they’ll mask it in arguing it’s about protecting bird species,” she said.
Whale deaths a problem, but no evidence connects them to wind, experts say
The East Coast is in the midst of a seven-year whale die-off that caused NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event — an in-depth scientific investigation — for humpbacks in 2016. Two other unusual mortality investigations for whales began in 2017, one for minke whales and one for North Atlantic right whales.
Since Dec. 1, six dead humpback whales and one sperm whale have been seen along the New Jersey shore and eight other humpbacks washed up along the coast between New York and North Carolina. It’s not clear this is an outsized number compared to past years.
“It is too soon to speculate about this year being higher than any others,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Allison Ferreira.
Greenpeace’s Hocevar isn’t concerned.
“There’s no evidence that we’ve seen implicating wind turbines and the deaths of whales on the East Coast, he said.
Longer term, there are 10 projects in the environmental review process, meaning it will be years before construction is allowed to begin.
“While the climate deniers and the right-wing pundits are tilting at windmills,” said Hocevar, “most of us are focused on the real threats to whales – climate change, entanglement with fishing gear, ship strikes and plastic pollution.”