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US: Why Some Anti-Renewable Groups Have Developed Sudden Interest in Whales

US: Why Some Anti-Renewable Groups Have Developed Sudden Interest in Whales

A North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead on the beach. Photo: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Hundreds of dead whales have washed up on the Atlantic coast of the US since 2017, including the critically endangered north Atlantic right whale.

Their giant corpses have littered the east coast, from Florida in the south to Maine in the north. Government scientists have linked most cases to entanglements in fishing lines and collisions with ships, though many deaths lack data due to decomposition and time constraints.

Fossil-fuel-backed lobby groups have capitalised on the deaths to supercharge their fight against offshore wind farms, according to conservation groups, watchdogs and researchers.

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson claimed to Fox News viewers last month that “the government’s offshore wind projects — which are enriching its donors — are killing a huge number of whales, right now.” A spokeswoman from a group affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose funders include fossil fuel companies, then went on to link whale deaths to offshore wind projects.

Proponents of the theory are often vague on how exactly the developments are killing whales, but generally attribute their deaths to the sonar used during underwater surveys or from loud noises emitted by operational turbines.

Those claims have been repeated by conservative politicians, despite having no basis in science. And whale researchers have even started receiving violent threats from conspiracy theorists for supposedly covering up the cause of the mammals’ deaths from sonar.

Is there any truth to the claims?

“This whale thing just kind of appeared out of nowhere,” Arlo Hemphill, an ocean project leader on ocean sanctuaries and deep sea mining for Greenpeace USA told DW.

“For any of these injuries or deaths that have happened over the past couple of months, there’s not a shred of evidence that any of them have been caused by any activity associated with wind farms.”

Similar conclusions have been drawn by nonprofit conservation groups the Sierra Club and Oceana in conversations with DW, pointing to findings from the government agency responsible for investigating the deaths.

Cases have been reported in areas with no offshore wind development, and at times when no surveys were being undertaken.

Anjuli Ramos, New Jersey state director for the Sierra Club said whale deaths are being used to mislead people about renewable energy.

“It creates a really emotional response because it is the death of a marine mammal, it is the death of an animal that the public cares very deeply for,” Ramos said. And emotional responses are difficult to trump with scientific fact.

Most the 17 wind farms planned or already built along the east coast of the United States present no major concerns for whales, according to three conservation groups DW spoke to. Multiple conservation groups were involved in the approvals process, motivated by an urgent need to switch to renewables.

A coalition of environmental organisations even signed a deal last year to support a wind project off the coast of New York, if it was developed in an environmentally sensitive manner.

However, Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, did raise concerns about the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts, scheduled to begin construction in spring. North Atlantic right whales have started regularly feeding and socialising in the area.

He has concerns the construction could disrupt the oceanographic conditions that produce the food for the whales, causing them to move on and expend energy finding new food sources, and producing fewer offspring.

“The big old fat fertile females have lots more babies, we need them to be fat and happy,” Brogan said.

Amy DiSibio, a director of the “local, grassroots environmental organisation” Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, told DW that more investigation was needed to determine how the whales had died, pointing to the deaths for which no cause had been found.

An offshore wind farm. Representative image. Photo: Paul/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Who is pushing the claims?

David Anderson, policy and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, a fossil fuel industry watchdog, said that until the late 2000s, there was generally bipartisan support for clean energy development in the United States.

But as the technology became cheaper and more reliable, the fossil fuel industry began to fight back.

“I think the fossil fuel industry kind of caught on to the fact that their days were numbered,” Anderson said, adding that it started to fund and support politically powerful figures who campaigned against wind energy. Meanwhile, conservative organisations such as the Chicago-based think tank Heartland Institute and the Caesar Rodney Institute, a Delaware-based right-wing pressure group, which had long sown doubt about climate science, spread misinformation about offshore wind development. Both groups have a history of receiving money from the fossil fuel industry.

Research shows that groups like these are often behind front organisations that might otherwise appear to be grassroots citizen groups.

“There are several sites and groups that have gone national in their opposition to wind and solar farms that kind of feel grassrootsy, but then when you poke around to see who their leaders are, you can see that they’re constantly popping up at events and coordinating with special interest groups that are more concretely tied to the fossil fuel industry,” Anderson told DW.

DW reached out to several organisations who have cited whale deaths in their local campaigns against wind farms.

Bob Stern, president of the nonprofit coalition Save Long Beach Island, refused to answer DW questions on funding sources and lack of involvement in other whale campaigns, writing: “I do not allow the integrity and motives of our organisation to be impugned.”

Citizen activist group Protect Our Coast NJ was unable to respond in time for publication, but DiSibio of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines said her group had “never taken one dollar from fossil fuel, we don’t even have a contact in that industry. Our donors are mostly local, hard working, year round Nantucket residents.”

Matthew Eisenson, a legal expert at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change, said there are legitimately concerned local residents who are seeing a rapid expansion of renewable energy in new areas, but they are being misled by powerful interests.

The Biden administration wants to build at least 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes. But Eisenson says legal challenges and multi-pronged campaigns involving misinformation are slowing development.

Frustration among conservationists

For the conservationists who are actually working to save the whales, the campaigns are duplicitous and frustrating.

“One of the things that’s most troubling to me about this connection and the anti-wind sentiment around the whale strandings is the disregard for scientific expertise and advice from the people that have spent their lives studying and protecting these whales,” Oceana’s Brogan said.

What can actually help?

Greenpeace’s Hemphill says one of the main ways to protect such species is to create ocean sanctuaries, with no industry, large-scale shipping, and no fishing.

Controls on a more local level can make a difference too. Just restricting ship speeds to 10 knots can lower the risk of right whale deaths significantly, and limiting the number of fishing ropes in the water helps.

But one of the primary threats to biodiversity globally is climate change. Transitioning to renewable energy is one of the most effective ways to slow rising temperatures.

“Offshore wind is truly what’s going to save all of us, and also marine wildlife and wildlife in general, because that is what’s going to get us away from fossil fuel emissions,” Sierra Club’s Ramos said.

This article was originally published on DW.

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