US offshore takes on whale conspiracies

Four Republican congressmen have called for a halt to US offshore wind projects because of unsubstantiated claims blaming the industry for whale deaths. But this obvious misinformation can still be a threat for the growth of the industry.


March 29, 2023

  • Four Republicans call for a halt to US offshore wind over whale deaths
  • NOAA says ships and fishing nets are the main causes of these deaths
  • No link between offshore wind and whale mortality in giant UK market

You can have the best facts but you won’t always win the argument.

As conspiracy theorists peddle misinformation about alleged links between offshore wind turbines in US waters and whale deaths, this is a lesson worth remembering. It is easy for those in the wind sector to think politicians and the public will see through this cynical fear-mongering; and that the industry can ever satisfy the objectors.

Neither of these is true. This month, four Republican congressmen – Jeff Van Drew, Christopher Smith, Andy Harris and Scott Perry – called for an immediate halt to US offshore wind projects because of unsubstantiated claims about whale deaths. This follows similar claims in recent months from local protest groups funded by big oil.

The claims have been dismissed by organisations including the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Marine Mammal Commission, as well as a host of other scientists. But the industry would be wrong to think the debate is over or the point of most threat has passed.

After all, the conspiracy theorists don’t really want to win the argument. Their goal is to sow confusion and delay the growth of renewables, including offshore wind, for as long as possible while hoping that the political winds shift in their favour. We will not see any let-up in these whale death claims until after the 2024 presidential election.

‍Whale mortality event

As with many conspiracy theories, the starting point for this argument contains some truth. The NOAA has reported there has been an unusual spate of humpback whale deaths – a ‘mortality event’ – in the US from 2016 until now. On average, the NOAA has seen 25 humpback whale strandings annually, between the states of Maine and Florida, from 2016 to 2022. This could be to do with changing feeding patterns due to the warming of the planet. About half of those whales had a full or partial autopsy.

The NOAA said 40% of the cases show evidence of human interaction, including the whales being hit by ships or tangled in fishing nets. That is sad, but it does not show there is any link between these deaths and offshore wind projects.

Common sense can tell you that much. There are only seven offshore wind turbines spinning in US waters: five off the coast of Rhode Island and two off Virginia.

The idea that just seven turbines have caused these deaths is ludicrous. Most of the whale deaths reported by the NOAA happened before offshore construction started on the first utility-scale wind farm in US waters: the 800MW Vineyard Wind 1. That removes one of the major planks of the objectors’ arguments.

You can contrast that to the UK, where there are 2,652 offshore turbines in operation and where experts have seen no connection between those turbines and the deaths of whales. Conspiracy theorists claim the whales were confused because their ears were damaged by drilling for offshore turbines, which made it more difficult for them to avoid ships. If that were the case then it would happen in the busy North Sea too.

But gaps in the evidence are no problem for conspiracy theorists. Far from it. These gaps can then be filled by any bizarre theories they want. The critics will focus on the 60% of cases the NOAA did not give further information about, and claim it is due to corrupt scientists, cover-ups and alleged malevolence in the renewables sector.

This may be garbage, and companies in the US offshore wind sector may be able to prove it is garbage. But every day that distracted companies need to take to dismiss these ludicrous claims is one day less to progress their schemes. There is, therefore, a danger for companies if they are distracted this spurious nonsense.

‍Causing confusion

Because here’s the thing. US offshore wind companies care about whales, and the environment more widely. That is why they’re progressing the energy transition.

Many of the objectors swayed by these emotive ‘whale death’ campaigns care about whales too. But that does not mean these campaigns are rooted in fact, or that those who conceive them have pure motives. It is the offshore equivalent of Donald Trump making repeated false claims about bird deaths caused by onshore wind turbines – and it stretches credibility to believe Trump ever cared about bird populations!

The wind industry would also be wrong to assume this argument can ever be won. There will always be new objections from those that are looking to cause confusion and delays, as that all helps them slow the gradual decline of fossil fuels in the US.

This means the risk has not passed. The renewable energy industry needs to speak in a strong and united voice to disprove this misinformation, as it has been. It should also continue to make a positive case for the role that renewables will play in helping avert the worst of climate change and protecting life on this planet, including whales.

But our strongest message for the industry is this: don’t lose faith. The best facts do not always win the argument, but neither do the loudest voices. Sense can prevail.

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