LD-11 Flashpoint: Oil Money, Hot Air, Fast Ships, and Dead Whales

For months the gruesome photos of dead whales washing up on our beaches had wind power activists on the defensive making support for the alternative energy source radioactive in a shore constituency like Monmouth County’s 11th District where the incumbent Sen. Vin Gopal (D) is locked in an obscenely expensive contest with his Republican opponent Steve Dnistrian (R).

It’s a particularly hot controversy in the 11th district where the beach is the biggest business and Gov. Phil Murphy, a major backer of wind power, actually lost in 2021.

Even down ballot Democrats serving in Trenton in the era of Trump have proved really vulnerable here. In 2021, Gopal’s two Assembly running mates Eric Houghtaling and Joan Downey were bested in a squeaker by their GOP challengers Marilyn Piperno and Kimberly Eulner. Gopal just barely beat Lori Annettta by just 2,500 votes.

Only 71,274 voters turned out of the 160,320 that were registered, and that was with the Gubernatorial contest at the top of the ballot. Historically, elections where only the state legislature is up are anemic affairs drawing just 27 percent of voters out in 2019, a slight improvement over the 22 percent posted in 2015, the lowest in state history.

So, with the broad swath of the electorate likely to be MIA, the battle lines for this race were drawn around the hot button anxiety triggers for their respective bases like reproductive freedom, parental rights, gender identity, immigration and property taxes, crime and of course the dead whales.

Wind power boosters say the whale deaths are part of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes as an unrelated “unusual mortality event” along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida where there has been at least 178 cases where dead whales washed ashore, from Maine to Florida with New Jersey accounting for at least 22 of them since 2016 as of a few months back.

Back in January, leading environmental groups like the NJ League of Conservation Voters, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and the New Jersey Organizing Project, all tried to head off the linking of wind power to the spate of whale deaths.

“The number one threat facing our marine ecosystem today, including marine mammals, is climate change and offshore wind and access to clean energy and our transition to clean energy is one of the most important tools that we have in order to protect the entirety of our ecosystem including marine mammals,” said Alison McLeod, the public policy director for the NJ League of Conservation Voters at a press conference.

McLeod added that the whale deaths were linked to vessel strikes, something that’s become increasingly more common as the whales shifted northward as the Atlantic’s ambient water temperature has risen.

But Clean Ocean Action, a well-established environmental group, sounded a cautionary note on the state’s plans to build three off-shore wind turbines farms capable to provide enough carbon-free electricity to power 1.5 million homes.

“We have had more beached whales in a month than in a year upon average, so we are very concerned about the unprecedented number of whales being washed up dead on our beaches in a short period of time,” Clean Ocean Action Advocacy Campaign Manager Kari Martin told NJ Spotlight News.

Over the arc of the last several months, as the number of dead whales continued to pile up, despite the environmental groups best efforts, public support for the proposed wind farms offshore took a major hit. Late in August, a  Monmouth University Poll found that that four in ten Jersey residents opposed the installation of the windfarms as compared to a 76 percent approval of them back in 2019.

Zeroing in on just New Jersey’s four shore counties the collapse of the support for wind power was more dramatic, dropping from 75 percent support to an underwater 43 percent. Even inland, the slippage was considerable from 75 percent to 56 percent.

Based on the unprecedented volume of mailers I have gotten here in Neptune, less than a mile from the beach, both Gopal and Dnistrian are trying to paint the other as a wind power supporter validating the assertion that wind power may be problematic for marine mammals, something most federal and state environmental officials dispute.

But just as the potential impact of industrial scale wind power on marine mammals produced a dispute between Clean Ocean Action and the rest of the state’s environmental groups that aligned with Murphy, there’s not consensus among all government scientists.

March 1st Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2nd Dist. NJ) blasted the Biden administration “for its continual lack of transparency…. about the correlation of offshore wind development and the death of endangered whales” that had been flagged by a career government scientist.

In his press release, Van Drew linked to an internal letter from 2022, that was addressed to Brian Hooker, the lead biologist of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) from Sean Hayes, the Chief of Protected Species at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) addressing  the decades long impact offshore wind will have on North Atlantic right whales in southern New England.

“These risks occur at varying stages, including construction and development, and include increased noise, vessel traffic, habitat modifications, water withdrawals associated with certain substations and resultant impingement/entrainment of zooplankton, changes in fishing effort and related potential increased entanglement risk, and oceanographic changes that may disrupt the distribution, abundance, and availability of typical right whale food,” Hayes wrote.

The NOAA expert’s correspondence continued. “The focus of this memo is on operational effects, and as such, focuses on potential oceanographic impacts driving right whale prey distribution, but also acknowledges increased risks due to increased vessel traffic and noise. However, unlike vessel traffic and noise, which can be mitigated to some extent, oceanographic impacts from installed and operating turbines cannot be mitigated for the 30-year lifespan of the project, unless they are decommissioned.”

“They refuse to acknowledge that their plan to ‘save the world’ through alternative energy sources will have detrimental and catastrophic effects on our environment and marine animals,” Van Drew wrote in his press release that pledged hearings. “But, as long as these offshore wind companies make their profits under the guise of stopping climate change, I guess it doesn’t matter to this administration. Accountability is coming.”

On March 16, at the Wildwood Convention Center in Ocean County, an unusual Congressional field hearing was convened by Van Drew, along with fellow Republican Reps. Chris Smith (NJ), Andy Harris (MD), and Scott Perry (PA) that drew 400 people according to the Asbury Park Press.

Yet in July, it was full steam ahead for Gov. Murphy, who signed controversial legislation that handed over hundreds of millions of federal tax incentives intended for consumers to the wind power Danish multinational Ørsted.

Gopal voted against it.

Several months earlier, Brian Lipman, the state’s Rate Counsel, expressed “great concern” Trenton needed to slow down its embrace of wind power due to a potential spike in energy rates for the state’s consumers.

In a mailer from Dnistrian, Piperno and Eulner the GOP slate posed the question “Why did Phil Murphy shower a billion dollars of our money on a foreign corporation? A: To bail out Vin Gopal’s wind project.”

The Republicans “called for a moratorium on offshore wind development while scientists investigate impact on whales, dolphins, and other mammals.” The GOP flyers include quotes from Gopal from 2019 and 2020 supporting offshore wind as a way to combat climate change.

The local battle over wind power has to be put in the broader context of the well documented campaign by legacy fossil fuel interests to throttle the development and deployment of alternative energy on the industrial scale that will move the needle in terms of the climate crisis.

“Converging forces make the clean energy transition seem inevitable but will local hurdles to siting wind and solar projects be the unexpected headwind blocking billions in new investment?” asked a Forbes columnist last year. “Data shows the public, including communities hosting wind and solar projects, approve of renewables and want more of them. Yet fossil-aligned groups are sowing dissent and stalling progress.”

Forbes’ analysis continued. “Unfortunately, proposed wind and solar projects have faced an avalanche of local opposition in recent years, often based on misinformation or outright fallacies. Opposition groups, following a playbook organized by a fossil-funded think tank, spread fallacies about impacts to wildlife, property values, health, and more, sowing fear and anger.”

According to research by the Energy and Policy Institute, a Washington D.C. based group called the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a shadowy 527 group, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry and from the Koch family that it used to target Gopal on the wind power dead whale link.

“A Republican group that paid for anti-offshore wind power ads targeting Democrats ahead of New Jersey’s November 7 state legislative elections raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry earlier this year,” reported Dave Anderson for the Energy and Policy Institute. “The Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) announced in July that it had launched ‘two five-figure ad buys on the effect of offshore wind projects that are putting the lives of whales in danger; the very same whales that have been washing up on New Jersey beaches.’”

In his flyers, Gopal highlights Politico reporting that Dnistrian “runs a branding and strategic communications firm,” that “represented LS Power Grid, which was one of more than a dozen companies vying to build infrastructure—including large power lines—to bring offshore energy inland.”

“The last thing Trenton needs is another Hypocritical Politician, Vote NO to Hypocrite Steve Dnistrian,” Gopal’s flyer declares.

While the debate over the future of offshore wind power rages here on dry land, it’s apparently a free for all out on the high seas where thousands of ships ignore the mandatory and voluntary vessel seasonal speed limits set by NOAA back in 2008 to protect the seriously endangered North Atlantic Right Whale that migrates off the Jersey coast.

Earlier this month, in a detailed analysis of the actual real time tracking data for the almost 9,000 vessels that made close to 100,000 trips between 2020 and 2022, 84 percent ignored the speed restrictions greatly increasing the likelihood of a whale strike, according to Oceana, a well-respected international maritime conservation non-profit.

“Boat strikes are a leading cause of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales,” according to Oceana’s press release. “Limiting ship speeds to 10 knots is estimated to reduce a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from being struck by a boat over 65 feet by between 80 percent and 90 percent.”

“Current safeguards are not enough. As a result of these findings, Oceana is urgently calling on NOAA to immediately release the final updated Vessel Speed Rule to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction.”

“Boats are speeding, and whales are dying — it’s just that simple,” said Oceana Campaign Director Gib Brogan. “It’s clear that boats are still not abiding by the speed limits and are continuing to make the ocean a dangerous place for North Atlantic right whales. Time and time again we see what happens when speeding boats and right whales collide. Even one human-caused death is too many for this population to sustain. If NOAA wants to save this species from extinction, ships must slow down when these whales are present, and speeding boats must be held accountable. Time is of the essence before North Atlantic right whales reach the point of no return.”

According to NOAA, the North Atlantic right whales have been on the Endangered Species Act since 1970 and have now dwindled to fewer than 360 with less than 70 breeding females.

No doubt you have heard the phrase ‘like a canary in the coal mine’ as a phrase referencing the 19th century lifesaving practice of using the small birds in the mines as a way of detecting the presence of toxic carbon monoxide to save the lives of miners.

Perhaps, amidst all of the 11th district’s hot air, it’s the continued existence of the North Atlantic right whale off the Jersey shore we should use as a gauge of our own environmental success or failure.

If we can’t save the whales, we are really fooling ourselves about conserving the planet.

Slow the boats down and suck it up on next day delivery.

(Visited 1,180 times, 1 visits today)

3 responses to “LD-11 Flashpoint: Oil Money, Hot Air, Fast Ships, and Dead Whales”

  1. 17 dead whales & over 50 dead dolphins stranded on New Jersey’s shore since December, more than any other state on the East coast. This dramatic spike in deaths coincides with unprecedented levels of offshore surveying employing sonar. An investigation is warranted. Oil companies are backing offshore wind, BP,Norwegian Oil, Shell & Danish Oil Natural Gas(Orsted) are all involved in New Jersey’s wind projects. Did you ask the groups supporting OSW if they received donations from the industry?

  2. Boats hitting whales and whales being entangled in fishing equipment are not new things. The Port of NY / NJ is the busiest in the nation.

  3. ‘Last week, Oceana in the United States released a report that showed most boats are speeding through slow zones designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Oceana analyzed boat speeds from November 2020 through July 2022 in slow zones established by NOAA along the U.S. East Coast and found that 84% of boats sped through mandatory slow zones, and 82% of boats sped through voluntary slow zones. This report shows that stronger safeguards and increased enforcement are needed to save North Atlantic right whales.’ https://usa.oceana.org/press-releases/new-estimate-finds-north-atlantic-right-whale-population-still-at-risk/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

News From Around the Web

The Political Landscape