Biden Climate Agenda Runs Aground Over Unexplained Whale Deaths
At stake is President Biden’s signature clean energy initiative to develop offshore wind turbine farms up and down the east coast — an integral part of his agenda to tackle climate change.
Federal energy and environmental officials are moving to try to quash a battle between environmental groups over whether wind turbine survey work off the coast of New Jersey is causing the deaths of whales in the Northeast, saying definitively Wednesday that there is no evidence to support these claims.
At stake is President Biden’s signature clean energy initiative to develop offshore wind turbine farms up and down the East Coast — an integral part of his agenda to tackle climate change. The administration’s goal is to develop 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, which it says is “enough to power 10 million homes with clean energy.”
By 2035, according to the Department of Energy, wind will “play a significant role in achieving President Biden’s goals to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035 and a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050.” The recent spate of whale deaths and calls to halt wind turbine development threaten to derail this.
Seven dead whales have washed ashore in New York and New Jersey in the last six weeks. Of these, five are humpback whales and two are sperm whales, an endangered species, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
On Monday, another dead humpback whale washed ashore in Maryland. This makes a total of 14 strandings on the East Coast since the beginning of December.
Critics say survey work on the Atlantic Shores wind development, which is slated to have 111 turbines 10 miles off the New Jersey coast — one of three offshore turbine projects approved in the Garden State so far — is interfering with whale sonar and may be contributing to their deaths.
The work involves multi-beam sound equipment, scan sonar, and “cone penetration testing,” in which a metal rod is pushed into the sea floor to test its suitability as a site for turbine pilings.
Last week, one of New Jersey’s leading coastal protection groups, Clean Ocean Action, and several other environmental and community groups, as well as local and state legislators, held a press conference on the beach at Atlantic City to call on the Biden administration to halt wind turbine work until a thorough investigation is conducted into the causes of the whale deaths and the effects the turbine developments will have on marine wildlife.
“If you want to do something this massive and this industrial to our ocean, we deserve and demand full transparency,” the executive director of Clean Ocean Action, Cindy Zipf, said.
“The deaths of seven whales in 39 days is unprecedented,” Ms. Zipf reiterated in a statement. “What if these ocean industrial activities were related to a fossil fuel project — would that change anyone’s view on a call to action?”
In response, several competing environmental groups held a press conference Tuesday to show support for the wind project and decry what they say is a false narrative from Clean Ocean Action that the project is hurting marine mammals.
“There is no evidence that any of the recent strandings so far have been tied to offshore wind,” the policy director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, Allison McLeod, said. “The number one threat to the marine environment is climate change. Offshore wind is one of the most important tools we have to protect the entirety of our marine ecosystem.”
With environmentalists pitted against each other — what’s more important, whales or climate change? — and tensions high, federal officials weighed in Wednesday. During a call with reporters, officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Institute, as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the rash of whale deaths is not related to turbine development but is a part of an “ongoing unusual mortality event.”
Since 2016, 178 dead humpback whales have washed ashore from Florida to Maine, according to NOAA officials. The agency said it has been able to do post-mortem exams on about half of these whales, 40 percent of which it was determined died from “human interaction” like ship strikes and fishing net entanglements, while the other 60 percent are a mystery.
NOAA officials gave potential causes for these unexplained deaths that include an increasing humpback whale population, which may be forcing the whales to venture into unfamiliar habitats, and climate change-related warming waters that are pushing whales closer to shore and increasing the likelihood of human interaction.
Officials were insistent that the whale deaths have nothing to do with turbine development. “I want to be unambiguous: There is no information supporting that any of the equipment used in support of offshore wind development could directly lead to the death of a whale,” the deputy chief for the permits and conservation division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Institute, Benjamin Laws, said.
Mr. Laws also detailed the precautions survey vessels take to avoid contact with large marine mammals, including requiring observers on board the ships whose sole job is to look out for these animals.
Despite his unequivocal statement, though, Mr. Laws did offer a caveat: “We know that whether it be construction, acoustics survey, that sort of thing, when you have an activity that’s putting noise into the environment, you might have the potential or the unintended consequence of effects to marine mammals,” he said. He called this low-level “behavior disturbance” an “incidental” risk, and stressed that this does not include death.
Opposition to the turbines is not limited to environmental groups. Commercial fishermen have expressed concern that the work will decimate the clam and scallop populations in the area and that navigating their vessels through the pilings will be difficult. Residents have also complained about the aesthetics of large turbine developments offshore.
None of this is deterring New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, a Democrat, from moving forward with the wind turbine developments. Last Thursday, he announced an agreement with a second company to lease an additional 35 acres for offshore wind development, touting the jobs and climate benefits. Governor Murphy’s proposed goal for his state is 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
If more dead whales keep washing ashore, though, calls for an investigation are likely to intensify. This could further erode public support for the wind turbine projects, and maybe even freeze — or at least put a pause — on Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.
When asked whether Clean Ocean Action would turn to the courts if the turbine developments are not halted to investigate whale deaths, Ms. Zipf said she’d prefer to engage in talks, but, “All actions are on the table.”