Fossil fuel interests are attempting to stop offshore wind projects in the US, disguising themselves as environmentalists and claiming to be worried about the harm the offshore wind structures might do to whales. This is concurrent with Big Oil lobbying to oppose environmental regulations and to promote offshore oil drilling.
Promoting disinformation about whale deaths, fossil fuel lobbyists are creating confusion in local communities. “It looks like grass-roots groups in local coastal communities are raising issues with offshore wind, but the evidence points to the fact that many of these groups have connections to Big Oil,” said Susannah Hatch, director of clean energy policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
The US outer continental shelf is an ideal site for wind energy resources on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. With the public increasingly calling for more renewable energy options, offshore wind is an idea whose time has come.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) in late March, 2023 announced the release of its Offshore Wind Energy Strategy, which is intended to help meet President Biden’s goal to deploy 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy by 2030 and set the nation on a pathway to 110 GW or more by 2050. Deploying 30 GW of offshore wind would provide enough power for 10 million homes, support 77,000 jobs, and spur $12 billion per year in direct private investment.
Offshore wind energy will be critical for reimagining America’s clean energy economy and building it right. Offshore wind is a more cost-effective energy source than oil and gas, and it threatens the future of US fossil fuel dependence. And so Big Oil looks for scapegoats — or, in this case, whale victims.
A dozen dead whales have washed up on New York and New Jersey beaches since December, part of a longer pattern of whale deaths up and down the east coast. The deaths have led some protesters to call for an end to offshore wind development, citing — without evidence — that the sound of the boats and underwater surveying might confuse the whales.
Experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and elsewhere say they see no evidence that undersea sounds emitted during survey work for the construction of wind farms is causing whale deaths.
In fact, it’s difficult to find scientific data that connects wind turbines to whale deaths. Marine Mammal Commission spokesperson Brady O’Donnell told USA Today there is “no evidence linking site preparation work for offshore wind farms with a number of whale deaths along the US East Coast.” We do know whales are dying because they’re being struck by shipping vessels, which have proliferated in recent years, and from getting caught in fishing gear. We know, too, that warming oceans means whales are traveling to more perilous waters in search of food.
There is evidence to cite, however, that Exxon Neftegas Ltd. carried out three 4D seismic surveys during the summer of 2015. Seismic operations in two fields ensonified the nearshore feeding area of Korean-Okhotsk (western) gray whales, potentially disturbing feeding activities. It is clear that these and other activities of the offshore oil industry pose risks to marine mammals.
Generally speaking, the installation of a drilling platform causes long-term effects on the surrounding marine area such as habitat fragmentation, chemical pollution, water quality degradation, or even an increase in maritime traffic and the risk of collisions. But in the short term, scientists are especially concerned about the impact of underwater noise and the risk of oil spills.
Mis/Disinformation about Whales & Offshore Wind
A pattern of recent whale deaths along the east coast of the US has many people upset. It’s unconscionable, however, that right-wing media have been promoting false fossil fuel industry talking points about offshore wind projects on Facebook. Media Matters found that in the first two months of 2023, from January 1 – March 1:
- Of the 288 posts that mention wind energy, nearly 84% specifically mentioned the unsubstantiated claim that offshore wind farms impact whale populations. These posts received 73,457 (73%) out of 101,277 interactions on posts about wind energy.
- 22 out of the top 50 most-interacted with posts about offshore wind energy contained misinformation claiming that they may be responsible for whale deaths on the East Coast.
- None of the posts with misinformation had fact-checks from Facebook moderators, and nearly all of them were from right-leaning pages.
- Right-leaning pages earned 90% of interactions on posts about wind energy.
- Many posts that did not contain misinformation still promoted a misleading narrative about offshore wind projects.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) granted $100 million for offshore wind projects. Offshore wind will help eliminate dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, promising healthier air as well as thousands of well-paying clean energy jobs. But, as we fight climate change, we can and must avoid, minimize, and mitigate threats to ocean life. Perpetuating false narratives, though, is unethical and hinders offshore wind applications from moving forward.
Right Whales & Offshore Wind
With only about 300 individuals remaining, North Atlantic right whales are classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. These animals spend much of their lives along the Eastern Seaboard of the US and Canada, where they share their migration corridor with areas targeted for offshore wind energy development.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in 2022 an important multi-agency initiative to increase protections for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale during offshore wind activities. With the agencies at the helm of offshore wind management and right whale conservation leading the effort, this broad initiative will collect information from all corners of government and work with scientists and whale experts to set regional-scale right whale monitoring priorities. Of utmost importance, the agencies will develop a “management strategy to protect and promote the recovery of North Atlantic right whales while responsibly developing offshore wind energy.”
“To protect this species, it will be critical to mitigate any negative impacts of offshore wind development, particularly those caused by pile driving during the construction of offshore wind power plants,” said Jason Wood, managing director for SMRU Consulting North America, which specializes in marine mammal research. SMRU Consulting is developing a real-time acoustic monitoring platform called the Coastal Acoustic Buoy for Offshore Wind (CABOW).
Comprising one or more CABOW units and a central base station, the CABOW system is designed to accurately detect right whale calls while providing users with information about where the animals might be. “Each relatively small CABOW unit is designed to be deployed for weeks at a time from any work boat equipped with a winch,” Wood said. “This makes the technology an easy-to-use and cost-effective mitigation strategy for offshore wind developers.”
The CABOW unit is just one example of the way that the Critically Endangered right whales are protected.
A North Atlantic right whale mother and her calf, feeding with whales in late March east of the Cape Cod Canal, ended up taking a swim in the canal, resulting in an escort from maritime authorities. After the pair were observed entering the canal, the US Army Corps of Engineers Cape Cod Canal operations team closed the 17.4-mile canal to maritime traffic from about 11 am to 4 pm. Authorities had been on heightened alert for right whale activity for several days, as a number of the marine mammals were observed by an aerial team from the Center for Coastal Studies feeding nearby on a rich patch of zooplankton.
The Center for Coastal Studies Marine Animal Entanglement Response (MAER) team recently removed 200 feet of entangling rope from a North Atlantic right whale found in Cape Cod Bay. The whale currently remains entangled. As part of its response, the MAER team outfitted the whale’s remaining wraps with a telemetry tracking buoy and is monitoring information received from the buoy and the weather in the hopes there can be another opportunity for further disentanglement attempts.
Species Potentially Affected by Wind Generation Development
In addition to right whales, 38 individual marine mammal taxa occur in the waters of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, according to NOAA. Seven species stocks, including blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), North Atlantic right whale, sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens), and common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), meet one or more of the criteria for listing of “Strategic” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
Five species — blue whale, fin whale, North Atlantic right whale, sei whale, and sperm whale — are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Of these marine mammals, 4 listed species — fin whale, North Atlantic right whale, sei whale, and sperm whale — were identified by the National Marine Fisheries Service through an Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation as being potentially subject to effects related to wind generation development.
All of these species deserve a safe ocean habitat. The following YouTube demonstrates how new innovations are being implemented to safeguard them as renewable energy becomes mainstream.
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