Federal officials have repeatedly stressed that there is no evidence linking offshore wind development along the East Coast to a recent string of whale deaths.
Regardless, GOP lawmakers are citing those deaths in an effort to ban offshore wind — the latest in a growing, misinformation-rich campaign to stymie a ballooning renewable energy sector that stands to compete with America’s powerful oil and gas industry.
“The current system in place has allowed offshore wind to move forward too quickly & too recklessly in an attempt to solidify the legacies of green new deal advocates,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) wrote in a Twitter thread last week. “They hurt the environment, raise energy prices, & will destroy existing industry.”
Van Drew is part of a group of Republicans who introduced a resolution this month that calls for an immediate federal moratorium on offshore wind leasing and construction activity pending the outcome of an investigation to “determine the true impacts” of this development.
The resolution specifically notes that 23 dead whales have washed up along the East Coast since December and accuses regulatory agencies of having “an unclear process for determining all contributing causes of death of whales through necropsies.”
Along with Van Drew, the measure currently has five other GOP co-sponsors: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green (Ga.), Andy Harris (Md.), Chris Smith (N.J.), Scott Perry (Pa.) and Anthony D’Esposito (N.Y.).
To be clear, there are a lot of unknowns about how offshore wind will impact wildlife and marine ecosystems in the short and long term. Like all other offshore industries, wind development has the potential to disrupt and harm whales and otherwise negatively impact the ocean environment.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and independent scientists have for months been pushing back against sweeping claims that offshore wind activities, including sonar surveys, are to blame for recent whale deaths. Such misinformation has featured prominently on Fox News and other conservative media in recent months.
“When you think about this obsession with green energy — the argument is always like ‘oil and gas is so bad for the environment,’” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said on her show March 10. “How ironic that what they are doing is almost certainly killing large swaths of the whale population.”
Greene, one of Congress’ proudest conspiracy theorists, has peddled similar nonsense. In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity in February, she claimed — again, without evidence — that whales are washing up because of “wind farms that are being placed all over the ocean.”
“People are calling the alarms over how [wind farms] are not only killing unknown thousands of bird species but also causing whales to beach themselves at record numbers,” Greene said.
There are only two small wind farms in operation in U.S waters, one off the coast of Rhode Island and another off Virginia. Together, they have just seven turbines and a capacity of 42 megawatts.
More than a dozen other large-scale projects are in various stages of permitting and development, but none are currently under construction — a reality that makes the conservative narrative particularly deceitful.
As part of a broader climate agenda, the Biden administration set a goal of securing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes for a year and cut 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. So far, it has granted final approval to two major offshore wind projects: the long-stalled Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, and South Fork Wind project off Rhode Island.
The recent whale strandings are part of what federal authorities have classified as an “unusual mortality event” that dates back to 2016.
“At this point, there is no evidence that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales, and no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys,” reads an FAQ on the NOAA’s website.
Rather, officials have pointed to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear — the two biggest human threats to whales, including humpbacks and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. At least 190 humpback whales have died along the East Coast since 2016. Forty percent of the animals that underwent necropsies showed signs of being struck by a boat or an entanglement.
“Since December 1, 2022, injuries consistent with vessel strike were identified in many of the animals necropsied,” Lauren Gaches, spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, told Inside Climate News this month.
Conservative lawmakers and media outlets are following the lead of fossil fuel-allied groups in exploiting whales to fight offshore wind. As HuffPost reported in November, anti-offshore wind groups, including some of the nation’s most hard-line climate change denial outfits, have branded themselves guardians of the endangered right whale as they threaten legal action against newly approved offshore wind projects.
Meanwhile, these same groups have advocated for increased offshore drilling while remaining silent about the documented threats to whales posed by oil and gas development. The NOAA estimates that 22% of the population of the endangered Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico was lost as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Those groups include the Heartland Institute and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, better known as CFACT, both of which have long histories of peddling climate change disinformation and cheerleading for the fossil fuel industry. In one of the more ironic and laughable moves of this anti-wind crusade, Peter Murphy, a senior fellow at CFACT, labeled the Biden administration “deniers” on par with the tobacco industry.
“As with the tabacco [sic] companies of yesteryear that disputed their product caused cancer, the Biden NOAA and climate-change cohorts are deniers, claiming there is ‘no evidence’ off-shore wind sites are harming whales,” Murphy wrote in a March 18 post to CFACT’s website, without presenting evidence to the contrary. “Rather, the agency attributes some of whale fatalities to ‘pre-mortem vessel strike,’ while conceding ‘more research is needed.’”
It is no secret that the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have a shared playbook for downplaying and dismissing the harm they have caused. In fact, a trove of documents compiled in 2016 by the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, or CIEL, showed that tobacco and oil giants have worked collaboratively for over half a century, sharing marketing and advertising strategies, research institutes, PR firms and even scientists.
CFACT is a member of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a group of conservative charities and nonprofits “focused on dispelling the myths of global warming,” according to its website. Between 1997 and 2007, CFACT received nearly $600,000 from oil giant ExxonMobil.
Few if any oil companies have done more to sow doubt about human-caused climate change than ExxonMobil.
In his post, Murphy concluded that “at the very least, there needs to be a moratorium on construction of off-shore wind turbines, which from a climate perspective alone are ineffective and a colossal waste, and now hazardous to the largest mammals on the planet.”
Three days later, Republicans introduced their resolution for an offshore wind moratorium.
Among other things, the resolution declares that “Atlantic coast offshore wind leases represent a transformative industrialization of vital environmental and maritime resources of the United States.”
There is no question wind farms will industrialize large swaths of U.S. waters. But one of the biggest threats to global ocean health is the burning of planet-warming fossil fuels. Oceans have absorbed an estimated 93% of the excess heat from human-caused climate change. This ocean warming has come with devastating impacts, from mass bleaching of coral reefs to the collapse of fisheries.
The NOAA notes on its website that whales, including the endangered right whale, are particularly vulnerable to climate change, as warming ocean temperatures impact the availability of zooplankton and other prey.
Without a herculean global effort to shift away from fossil fuels and halt planetary warming, scientists warn the impacts to the ocean and marine life will continue to mount.
“The percentage of animal species exposed to potentially dangerous conditions increases significantly the faster the world warms,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe tweeted this month, summarizing a finding of the latest United Nations climate report. “In general, ocean species like coral and tropical species are most at risk.”
Offshore wind could ultimately help rein in fossil fuel emissions and combat the global crisis — if disinformation doesn’t get in the way.
Media Matters, a media watchdog group, published a report last week that found that of the 288 Facebook posts from right-wing media in January and February that mentioned wind energy, a whopping 84% included unsubstantiated claims that offshore wind farms impact whale populations. The most popular post was a clip from Fox News’ Jesse Watters titled “Wind Surveying is KILLING our Whales.”