Democrats worried about whale deaths on the East Coast joined Republicans on Thursday in forcing a probe of White House-backed efforts to fast-track offshore wind turbines.
The House passed legislation Thursday that would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct “a comprehensive and independent” probe of the Biden administration’s fast-tracking of 3,400 offshore wind turbines.
The measure, included as an amendment to a major GOP energy bill, passed with the help of 29 Democrats and follows a sudden increase in whale deaths reported along the New York and New Jersey shoreline this year.
Nearly two dozen dead whales have washed ashore since December, many on the beaches of New York and New Jersey, where a dozen companies are working on wind farm projects.
The work involves geotechnical survey boats mapping the ocean floor using sonar equipment that blasts underwater air guns.
Some environmental groups fear the loud sounds could be interfering with whale communications and hearing, disturbing migration and feeding patterns. This could be causing the massive mammals to become injured or stranded on shore.
“The offshore wind industrialization approval process has left unaddressed and unanswered numerous serious questions concerning the potentially harmful environmental impact on marine life and the ecosystems that currently allow all sea creatures great and small to thrive,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and sponsor of the amendment.
The measure passed Thursday would require the GAO to examine the environmental review process used by federal agencies to greenlight the offshore turbines. The GAO would also be tasked with studying the impact of the offshore projects on marine life, including whales and other sea mammals, how the projects affect the sustainability of shoreline beaches and whether the turbines impede the military’s use and navigation of marine vessels.
Mr. Smith’s measure would also require the GAO to determine the safety of the turbines in hurricanes and other severe weather.
The amendment was included in a sweeping energy bill that passed 225-204. The measure would speed up the environmental review process for energy projects to quicken their approval, among other provisions aimed at boosting fossil fuel production and reducing energy prices.
Only four Democrats voted for the final bill and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the measure “dead on arrival.”
Mr. Smith’s amendment, however, signaled significant Democratic backing for a closer examination of offshore wind turbine development that is now underway.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has rejected calls by some environmental groups and local and federal lawmakers to halt the Garden State’s aggressive push for offshore wind development following the whale deaths.
Mr. Biden’s renewable energy plan calls for deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. The president’s ambitious offshore wind plan 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.
There are no operational offshore wind projects yet along the East Coast but construction is planned for offshore wind farms between Maine and North Carolina to provide 18,000 megawatts of power.
A large portion of wind energy projects are slated for an area of shallow water between Long Island and the New Jersey coast, where the whales have recently been washing ashore.
Officials with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said there has been an increase in whale strandings on the New York and New Jersey coastline along with an increase in humpback whale deaths since 2016.
While NOAA officials said they cannot explain the increase in whale deaths, they said there are “no known connections” to the wind turbine projects.
Mr. Smith called the Biden administration’s review process for the offshore wind projects “shoddy.” He said a far more thorough study is needed to determine the impact of the massive turbines, which could be as tall as 850 feet.
“With so much at stake, and out of an abundance of caution and concern, a serious, aggressive, and independent analysis on the ocean-altering impact of these projects is absolutely critical,” Mr. Smith said.
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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