Major Battle Over Wind Power and Whale Deaths Is Brewing Off Jersey Shore, as GOP Seeks a Moratorium on Development

Danish company Orsted demanding huge tax breaks, as Governor Murphy offers a $1 billion subsidy and opponents head to court.

AP/David Goldman
America's first offshore wind farm, owned by the Danish company, Orsted, off Block Island, Rhode Island, on October 17, 2022. AP/David Goldman

New Jersey state senate Republicans are calling for a moratorium on all offshore wind development until concerns over whale deaths and the financial viability of these projects are addressed.

The move comes a little over a month after New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Philip Murphy, signed a law authorizing $1 billion in subsidies to a Danish wind energy developer, Orsted. Two groups, Defend Brigantine Beach and Protect our Coast NJ, have filed a lawsuit arguing the tax break violates the state constitution by singling out a private entity “from commercial risk it voluntarily assumed.”

Mr. Murphy is pushing to make New Jersey the leader in offshore wind energy, but the state is also finding itself a leader in whale deaths. At least nine dead humpback whales have washed ashore on the New Jersey coast — the largest number of any state — since the start of the year. Other whale species and dead dolphins have also washed up.

Critics of offshore wind exploration say sonar mapping of the sea floor, a critical step in building offshore wind turbines, is likely causing these marine mammal deaths. New Jersey Republican state senator, Michael Testa, tells the Sun he’s also worried about the impacts the wind turbines will have on his state’s commercial fishing industry. He strongly opposes the $1 billion in subsidies to wind developers, which he says should have gone to New Jersey taxpayers in the form of electricity rate reductions.

“If these wind projects are financially sound then we shouldn’t be propping them up on the backs of the taxpayers and the rate payers in the state of New Jersey,” Mr. Testa tells the Sun. “I never thought I would have to have an argument with the Democratic Party to prevent them from industrializing our ocean.”

The wind industry is facing financial challenges that could have serious ramifications for taxpayers and electricity rates. Supply chain problems, high interest rates, the Jones Act’s prohibition on interstate maritime commerce with foreign vessels, and regulations in the Inflation Reduction Act are making offshore wind development more costly, and offshore wind developers are asking for more tax breaks and access to subsidies.

Orsted says it will be forced to write off $2.3 billion due to these issues, and says its New Jersey wind development won’t be operational now until 2026. The company has also threatened to “walk away” from the project if it doesn’t get more tax credits from the federal government.

Offshore wind is a key part of Mr. Biden’s green energy agenda. The administration is pushing for rapid offshore wind development up and down the East Coast, with a “bold goal” of developing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. The administration says this will be “enough to power 10 million homes with clean energy.”

The Department of Energy says 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.”

Backlash to offshore wind projects in New Jersey and elsewhere along the East Coast is growing, though, as the number of whale deaths increases. There have been 62 large whale strandings along the United States’ Atlantic coast so far in 2023, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Among these dead whales were 33 humpbacks and two North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species. There are fewer than 350 right whales left, with each death bringing the species closer to extinction.

“Many people are calling for a moratorium on offshore wind due to the fact that there has been an unprecedented number of whale deaths, dolphin deaths, and porpoise deaths along the East Coast,” Mr. Testa says. “Even proponents of offshore wind will acknowledge that this amount of marine life death constitutes an extreme anomaly.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the two governmental organizations overseeing the offshore energy industry and its environmental impacts, say, “there are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.” In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the start of what it calls an “unusual mortality event” for whales, though it says ship strikes and fishing line entanglements are the likely cause in this spike. 

Some other environmentalists disagree. “There’s been an enormous uptick in whale deaths beginning in 2016, which I don’t think it’s a coincidence that was exactly the year that offshore wind development starts happening in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland,” a co-founder of Save Right Whales Coalition, Lisa Linowes, tells the Sun.

The marine mammal conservationist group, Save Right Whales Coalition, sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this month calling for a shutdown of all sonar mapping until the organization conducts a thorough review of the sound levels this mapping produces. Ms. Linowes says a recent sound study conducted by Rand Acoustics of the high decibel noise levels at wind survey sites finds that sonar mapping produces much louder sounds than offshore wind developers are reporting to government regulators. This would make the area in which whales could be injured by the noise much larger than is currently being monitored.

“We believe this is a major factor behind the recent spate of whale deaths in the Atlantic Ocean,” the letter says. “These facts suggest that there has been a complete breakdown in the system designed to protect marine wildlife and protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.”

The conflict over offshore wind is not only partisan, it is pitting environmental groups against each other — with most of the larger environmental groups favoring the push for green energy, while others say the potential cost in extinct whale species is too high. This conflict echoes the one between environmentalists who are pushing for all-electric vehicles and those who oppose the rare earth mineral mining required to produce electric car batteries. Which green cause should be prioritized, and at what cost?

“We’ve got two laws in place, the Marine Mammals Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Neither one of those laws allow you to just kill whales because we need to do it in the name of climate change,” Ms. Linowes says. “The environmental groups went silent.”

Ms. Linowes says Save Right Whales Coalition is still waiting on a response from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“What’s amazing to me is the utter hypocrisy,” Mr. Testa says. “So-called environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Audubon Society — if there were one whale death or dolphin death due to exploration of offshore oil drilling, you know darn well they would be laying down on the beach and surrounding one of the whale carcasses, holding hands, tears streaming down their faces, signing Kumbaya and calling for an absolute moratorium on offshore drilling. Where are their voices right now?”

The New York Sun

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