Contrary to what politicians claim, offshore wind farms do not kill whales. Here’s what you need to know.

By | December 23, 2023

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Unsubstantiated claims about offshore wind-threatening whales have emerged as a flashpoint in the battle over the future of renewable energy.

In recent months, conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, have claimed that the construction of offshore wind turbines is killing the giant animals.

Scientists say there is no credible evidence linking offshore wind farms to whale deaths. But that hasn’t stopped conservative groups and ad hoc anti-development groups, who are not in my backyard, from making the connection.

The Associated Press sorts fact from fiction when it comes to whales and wind energy as the migration season of the rare North Atlantic right whale gets under way:

WHERE ARE OUR OFFSHORE WIND PROJECTS?

There are currently two commercial offshore wind farms under construction in the United States. Danish wind energy developer Ørsted and utility Eversource are building South Fork Wind, 35 miles east of Montauk Point, New York. Ørsted announced on December 7 that the first of the twelve turbines there now send electricity to the grid. Vineyard Wind is building a wind farm with 62 turbines 15 miles from Massachusetts. Both plan to open early next year, and other major offshore wind projects are obtaining permits.

There are also two pilot projects: five turbines near Rhode Island and two near Virginia. The Biden administration wants to provide 10 million homes with offshore electricity by 2030, a key part of its climate goals.

Lawsuits from community groups have delayed Ørsted’s two major offshore wind projects in New Jersey, and the company recently announced it will cancel those projects. That decision was based on their economic viability and had nothing to do with opposition to offshore wind in New Jersey, said David Hardy, group executive vice president and CEO Americas at Ørsted.

IS OUR WIND PARKING CAUSING WHALE DEATHS?

Experts say there is no evidence that limited wind farm construction on the Atlantic coast has directly led to whale deaths, despite politically motivated statements suggesting a link.

Rumors began swirling after 2016, when an unusual number of whales were found dead or stranded on New England beaches — a trend that predated the construction of large offshore wind farms that began this year.

“With whale strandings earlier this year in the Northeast, in places like New Jersey, the reality is that this is not due to offshore wind,” said Aaron Rice, a marine biologist at Cornell University.

In responding to questions about whale strandings earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that about 40% of whale carcasses recovered showed signs of death from fishing gear entanglement or ship strikes. The others could not be linked to a specific cause.

In Europe, where offshore wind energy has been developed for more than 30 years, national authorities have also found no causal link between wind farms and whale deaths.

Meanwhile, US scientists are collecting data near offshore wind farms to monitor any consequences, short of fatal ones, such as altered behavior or changes in migration routes. This research is still in its preliminary stages, says Doug Nowacek, a marine biologist at Duke University who helped place trackers on whales off the coast of Massachusetts this summer as part of a five-year federally funded study.

What real dangers do whales face?

Although the exact causes of recent whale strandings along the East Coast are largely unknown, whales do face dangers from human activities.

The biggest threats are ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, scientists and federal authorities said. Underwater noise pollution is another problem, they say.

Some whale protection advocates have characterized the fight against offshore wind energy as a distraction from the real issues. “It appears this is being used in an opportunistic way by anti-wind interests,” said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign director at environmental group Oceana.

Since 2016, humpback whales have been dying at an advanced rate – something the federal government calls an “unusual mortality event.” The much rarer North Atlantic right whale, with fewer than 360 individuals on Earth, is also experiencing unusual mortality.

NOAA reports that 83 whales have died off the East Coast since December 1, 2022. About half were humpback whales between Massachusetts and North Carolina, and two were critically endangered whales in North Carolina and Virginia.

WHAT IS BEING DONE TO PROTECT WHALES NEAR WIND PARKING?

Federal law sets limits on human-generated noise underwater for continuous noise and short sudden bursts.

Maritime construction projects can reduce the potential impact on marine mammals, including by pausing construction during migration seasons, using ‘bubble curtains’ to block the sound of piling, and stationing trained observers with binoculars on ships to search for marine mammals.

Offshore wind developers are taking steps required by regulators, but also voluntarily taking steps to ensure marine mammals are not harmed. Ørsted will not drive piles between December 1 and April 30, when the whales are on the move. It uses additional lookout vehicles, encircles monopiles in front of turbines with bubble curtains and conducts underwater acoustic monitoring.

Equinor plans to use acoustic monitoring and infrared cameras to detect whales when it begins developing two lease areas off Long Island with its partner bp. The company says it will limit piling to months when whales are least likely to be present.

WHY DO SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE that wind farms are causing the deaths of whales?

An outspoken opponent of offshore wind energy is the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of the foundation’s Center for Energy, Climate and Environment, wrote in November that Ørsted’s scrapped wind project in New Jersey “was ugly. ‘ and a threat to nature.

“Whales and birds… benefit when offshore winds leave the Garden State,” Furchtgott-Roth wrote.

Ørsted’s Hardy said claims about wind farms killing whales are “not scientific” but “highly politically driven disinformation.”

The Heartland Institute, another conservative policy group, has also pushed back on offshore wind projects. H. Sterling Burnett, director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the institute, said the wind projects are subject to unfairly lax regulatory restrictions compared to fossil fuel projects.

“We believe it should be held to the same standard as any oil and gas project,” Burnett said.

Smaller anti-wind groups have also organized in coastal communities to oppose projects they say endanger waterfront views, coastal industries and recreation.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF DISINFORMATION?

Opponents of offshore wind energy use unsubstantiated claims of harm to whales in an attempt to stop projects, with some of the loudest opposition being in New Jersey.

Misinformation can cause fear in coastal communities where developers need to build coastal infrastructure to operate a wind farm.

Republican politicians have taken the opposition from coastal cities and community groups seriously. GOP congressmen from New Jersey, Maryland and Arizona have pushed the U.S. Government Accountability Office to open an investigation into the offshore wind industry’s impact on commercial fishing and marine life and want a moratorium on projects.

New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature remains steadfastly behind the industry.

ARE WHALES AFFECTED BY CLIMATE CHANGE?

One reason why whale advocates are pushing for renewable energy is because they say climate change is harming the animals — and that less reliance on fossil fuels would help solve that problem.

Scientists say global warming has caused the whale’s favorite food, small crustaceans, to move as the water warms.

That means the whales have strayed from protected areas in the ocean in search of food, making them vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglements. Large whales play a crucial role in the ecosystem by storing carbon, so some scientists say they are also part of the solution to climate change.

___

The Associated Press’ climate and environmental reporting receives support from several private foundations. View more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *