A spate of whales washing up along East Coast beaches has exposed a deep rift in the environmental movement between conservationists seeking to stop the construction of massive offshore wind farms and advocates who say renewable energy projects will save the planet from climate change.
A group of environmentalists is calling on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to halt work on ocean wind projects after a sudden increase in whale strandings on the region’s seashores.
In a little more than a month, seven dead whales, most of them humpbacks, have washed up on New Jersey and New York beaches. That is a record in a region that typically has a similar number of beached whales in an entire year.
Some environmentalists say underwater surveys that involve blasting air guns into the ocean floor and other preparatory work for the installation of wind turbines could be disturbing whale migration and feeding patterns and causing the massive mammals to get injured or stranded on shore.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat pushing an aggressive renewable energy plan for the state that hinges on building several large offshore wind sites, rejected calls to halt the ocean projects in response to the whale deaths.
Some of the nation’s top environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, support his position.
Although those groups have long worked to protect wildlife, particularly endangered species, they are now prioritizing renewable energy production, especially offshore wind farms. They say renewable energy is necessary to end dependence on fossil fuels and stop climate change, which they believe is harming life on the planet, including whales.
“They have put their thumb on the scale in favor of doing renewable energy for the purposes of fighting climate change, and have either been unwilling or unable to come out and raise concern about this,” said Lisa Linowes, a coalition member of Save Right Whales.
Many of the green energy groups that are backing offshore wind farms get their funding from foundations dedicated to eliminating fossil fuels.
The Sierra Club has received some of its funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which supports “a 100% clean energy economy.”
The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sit alongside offshore wind companies on the steering committee of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, which seeks to develop enough offshore wind to help the state achieve its mandate of a 100% emissions-free grid by 2040.
The Sierra Club opposes halting offshore wind projects because of concerns about the whales and is calling for mitigation techniques, such as entanglement deterrents and turbine configurations that may lessen the impact of active wind farms on marine life.
“Blaming offshore wind projects on whale mortality without evidence is not only irresponsible but overshadows the very real threats of climate change, plastic pollution and unsustainable fishery management practices to these animals,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.
The big question is whether the Sierra Club and other big environmental groups would dare express concern that offshore wind projects might be injuring whales when they are embedded with wind companies in the quest to eliminate fossil fuels.
“That’s the shocking news to us: when you see a large, national environmental group whose focus is on saving the planet for the purposes of protecting wildlife, to industrialize things in a habitat at the level that is being promoted right now,” Ms. Linowes said. “There is something not right there. We just scratch our heads and say something is going on.”
Ms. Linowes joined several environmental groups that sent a letter to President Biden demanding a halt to all ocean-related wind projects until the federal government, with oversight from an independent scientist, investigates the whale deaths.
Mr. Biden’s renewable energy plan calls for deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. His ambitious offshore wind plan overall would provide a year’s worth of power for more than 10 million homes and “avoid 78 million metric tons of CO2 emissions,” Biden officials said.
No offshore wind projects are in operation yet, but planning is underway for millions of acres of offshore wind farms from Maine to North Carolina to provide 18,000 megawatts of power.
A large portion of the wind energy projects is slated for an area of shallow water between Long Island and the New Jersey coast where the whales have been washing ashore.
Nearly a dozen companies are working on wind farm preconstruction off the New Jersey coastline. The work involves geotechnical survey boats with solar equipment to map the ocean floor. Critics fear the loud sounds blasted from the boats could be damaging the whales’ hearing and interfering with their communications.
“The premature death of so many whales and other marine mammals is an untenable situation that we believe is most likely caused by the increase in vessel traffic and the ‘sounding,’ or mapping of the ocean floor, by several offshore wind project developers,” said Suzanne Hornick, a spokeswoman for Protect Our Coast NJ, which signed on to the letter to Mr. Biden. “We must have scientific investigation and complete transparency of all government agencies involved with the industrialization of our ocean.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, which are dedicated to net-zero emissions by 2050, disagree with the smaller environmental groups pushing for a moratorium on offshore wind projects.
“NRDC and other groups are not seeing evidence that whale strandings are related to offshore wind activities,” said Eric Miller, NRDC’s New Jersey energy policy director. He warned organizations supporting fossil fuels that they may be “trying to lump themselves in with those legitimately concerned environmental organizations.”
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has reported increased strandings of whales in the New Jersey/New York region over the past six weeks along with an “elevated humpback mortality” for the past seven years along the Atlantic coast. More than 178 humpbacks have turned up dead.
Most of the whales that recently washed ashore along the New York and New Jersey coastline were humpbacks.
NOAA officials say they don’t know what is causing the increase in whale deaths in the mid-Atlantic region or the elevated mortality among humpbacks since 2016, but agency officials are not blaming wind projects.
“There are no known connections between any of this offshore wind activity and any whale stranding regardless of species,” said Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for the NOAA fisheries office of protected resources permits and conservation division.
Some fossil fuel advocates, as Mr. Miller suggested, have also sounded the alarm about offshore wind projects endangering whales.
David Wojick, a former Department of Energy contractor and researcher who writes for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, said he has investigated the data on whale strandings and sees a direct link to the preconstruction work on offshore wind projects.
He criticized NOAA’s findings of “no known connection” between the project work and whale deaths. He said humpback whale deaths began to increase dramatically and the population of endangered right whales began dropping after NOAA provided “incidental harassment authorizations” that allow offshore wind companies to do work along the Eastern Seaboard that might result in behavioral disturbances among marine mammals.
The right whale population has dropped to 340, down from 348 in 2022 after reaching a high of 500 whales in 2010.
“They started issuing harassment permits, and the humpback whale death rate tripled and the right whales started going down tubes,” Mr. Wojick said.