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Opponents say Dominion’s offshore wind farm endangers whales. Scientists say it doesn't.

A wind turbine is seen in the foreground, with a boat in the background. This is outside of Virginia Beach.
Laura Philion
Dominion Energy’s pilot turbines off Virginia Beach.

Read the original article on WHRO's website.

A series of whale deaths along the East Coast early this year has spurred an ongoing dispute over the burgeoning offshore wind industry.

Several of the deaths happened in Virginia Beach and Cape Charles. Two were humpbacks; one was a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, later determined to have been struck by a vessel. Another right whale was also caught entangled in fishing line off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Around the same time, more than a dozen humpback whales were found dead along the coasts of New Jersey and New York over the span of a few months — the latest in what scientists call an “unusual mortality event” stretching back to 2016. Warming waters driven by climate change are bringing humpbacks closer to shore, while cargo shipments carried on big ships are also on the rise.

Scientists later said most of the deaths were caused by ship strikes.

But some local politicians and national conservative pundits pointed the finger somewhere else: offshore wind development.

More than a dozen offshore wind projects are in various stages of permitting along the East Coast. The Biden administration considers the nascent industry a key part of its climate policy, setting a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of electricity generated from offshore wind farms by 2030, or enough to power more than 10 million homes.

In January, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused offshore wind projects of killing “a huge number of whales” on his show. Fox News also linked the right whale death in Virginia Beach to Dominion Energy’s project.

Thirty mayors in New Jersey called for a moratorium on offshore wind activity until further investigation into the whale deaths. The uproar also fueled a few “save the whales” rallies, including in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

But scientists say there’s nothing to back up such claims.

“There’s no scientific evidence that even a single whale death has been linked to offshore wind energy development,” said Andrew Read, a marine biology professor at Duke University who also serves on the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency that advises on federal policy affecting marine mammals.

The biggest proven threats to whales are vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear —often tied to existing industries like shipping and commercial fishing, Read said.

Now, two conservative think tanks have notified the government they plan to sue to halt Dominion Energy's planned wind farm off Virginia Beach, arguing the project threatens the endangered right whale.

The two think tanks — the Illinois-based Heartland Institute and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow — have a long history of rejecting the scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels like oil and gas. Both groups have opposed efforts to shift to renewable energy.

James Taylor, president of Heartland, said he views renewable energy as the wrong direction for the country economically.

"We're looking to protect [the] American standard of living. We're looking to protect affordable, reliable energy,” Taylor said. “But when you also see this environmental devastation, it just begs for us to get involved and to stand up for wildlife as well.”

Critics, meanwhile, say the groups are spreading misinformation about the threat to whales as a tool to stop wind projects from moving forward.

“It’s utilizing something that is perceived as environmentally-friendly,” said Ruth McKie, a senior lecturer in criminology at De Montfort University in the U.K. who studies organized opposition to climate action.

If filed, the lawsuit would be one of the first to test the argument in court. Lawsuits from landowners and fishing businesses in the Northeast have mentioned whales in a few other recent cases, some of which were already dismissed by a judge.

The controversy is one of several roadblocks the U.S. offshore wind industry faces as it finds its footing.

And Dominion’s Virginia Beach project — which is set to be the nation’s largest commercial wind farm — is now at the forefront.

A strategy to halt renewable energy?

Critics question whether the new legal action is really about wildlife.

“I would be pleased to learn they are concerned about whales, but I’m sure it isn’t so,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, wrote in an email. He cited the Heartland Institute’s history of “ignoring science.”

McKie, the U.K. researcher, said Heartland is known for a decadeslong campaign to discredit the science behind climate change, including annual climate conferences and policy briefs “debunking the myth of global warming.”

The institute had donors in the fossil fuel industry at least up until the mid-2000s, she said. (Heartland denies accusations that former funding from the industry has any influence on its current activities.)

McKie sees the focus on whales as part of a shift in strategy. The new “save the whales” campaign could represent a shift from targeting climate science to undermining climate action, such as the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“It’s not necessarily going to stop it. It’s about delaying it as long as possible,” she said. “Every time you can stop an offshore wind development, you’re delaying that energy transition.”

Taylor, the president of Heartland, said protecting vulnerable species “should stand regardless of who is on what side,” accusing environmentalists of “turning a blind eye” in order to safeguard wind projects.

Heartland has been critical of the Endangered Species Act in the past, sometimes even calling for its repeal. Now, the group is taking a page out of environmentalists’ playbook.

“If there's anything that environmental groups used to tell us is that, ‘look, if there's a reasonable chance that you're going to do harm to plants, to animals, to wildlife — at the very least, slow down, take a time out and look at it,’” Taylor said. “And that's a standard that should apply here.”

Endangered whales and wind farms

Read, of Duke University, said he’s glad endangered whales are getting so much attention. But he’d like the public to focus on proven threats to the species, like boat strikes and fishing entanglement.

“In terms of whale conservation, wind energy development is not very high on my list of things to keep me awake at night,” Read said.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic Right Whales left in the ocean. Their dwindling population makes losing even one of the whales a major concern.

The whales’ annual migration takes them up the East Coast, from their breeding grounds off Florida and Georgia to summer feeding grounds off eastern Canada, Read said.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal officials have to weigh impacts on right whales when considering offshore wind projects. The government’s biological opinion found that the Virginia project is not likely to jeopardize the whales’ population.

That’s based on analysis from federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that says the creatures can be adequately protected by mitigation measures. Scientists say they plan to research more about potential impacts from offshore wind infrastructure on whales’ food supply of tiny zooplankton.

The Heartland Institute and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow argue the government’s analysis is flawed and therefore violates the Endangered Species Act.

They recently notified the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and National Marine Fisheries Service of their intent to sue in 60 days — a step required by law before filing suit. (BOEM declined to comment, citing pending litigation.)

Collister Johnson, a senior adviser with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and former board chair of the Virginia Port Authority, said federal officials haven’t sufficiently considered the cumulative effects of building multiple wind farms in the Atlantic, rather than looking at each individually.

“It doesn't take a scientist to understand that if you're putting thousands of these giant wind turbines out in the migratory path of the right whale, you're going to have a negative impact,” Johnson said.

Johnson and other opponents argue that site surveys done by offshore wind companies ahead of construction could have played a role in this year’s whale deaths.

But marine officials say the acoustic energy used in those surveys is weaker than those used by oil companies that need to penetrate deep into the seafloor, and no stronger than beams used by fishing vessels. The Heartland Institute has in the past supported oil and gas exploration along the Eastern Seaboard — citing federal analysis concluding seismic surveys pose no significant threat to marine life.

In a page on its website responding to concerns about offshore wind and whales, NOAA Fisheries officials acknowledge that acoustic trauma in whales is very challenging to assess, but say they plan to keep looking at samples from necropsied animals.

“Strandings and inconclusive necropsies have occurred long before offshore wind was a factor, so correlating the two now is not based in science,” NOAA wrote.

Dominion Energy declined to comment specifically on the pending litigation. But the utility’s federal permitting requires that it take several actions to protect marine life including whales, said environmental manager Mitchell Jabs.

“North Atlantic Right Whales were a consideration from the very beginning of the project,” she said.

Those measures include using “bubble curtains” to reduce underwater noise during pile-driving, maintaining lower vessel speed limits and using visual and acoustic monitoring to spot whales nearby.

The Nature Conservancy and NOAA also announced they plan to study fish behavior around the Virginia turbines through 2027, including their responses to construction noise.

Dominion has already started receiving some wind turbine foundations and plans to start installing them in the water in the spring.

Dominion Energy is a VPM donor.

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