January 30, 2022
Imagine for a moment what might happen if an oil company – say, Exxon Mobil or Chevron – announced plans to put dozens of offshore drilling platforms on the Eastern Seaboard, smack in the middle of where endangered North Atlantic right whales congregate. If that were to happen, it’s easy to imagine that America’s biggest environmental groups would express their outrage and immediately begin filing lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other federal rules to protect the whales and stop the industrialization of their habitat.
Enough for the imagining. Let’s cut to the reality of the proposed 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project, which aims to do just this: put dozens of offshore wind platforms smack in the middle of where endangered North Atlantic right whales congregate. As I reported last month, Vineyard Wind is now the focus of at least two federal lawsuits, with plaintiffs claiming that the project violates the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
But the latest litigation wasn’t filed by environmental groups. Instead, it was filed by the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation on behalf of several commercial fishing groups. TPPF’s litigation was filed a few months after a study found that the region targeted for offshore wind development is a crucial habitat for the right whale. Between 2011 and 2019, some 327 unique right whales were spotted in the region. Furthermore, the endangered whales have been sighted in the area south of the Vineyard Wind site every month over the past few years. The same study found consistent use of the area proposed for wind development by a third of the species and nearly a third of right whale breeding females.
But the Vineyard Wind project, which is owned by Avangrid Renewables (a subsidiary of Spanish utility Iberdrola) and a Danish firm, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, is only a small part of the offshore wind extravaganza now being planned for the East Coast. As I reported in Forbes last year, the amount of offshore wind now in the planning stages will require “massive industrialization of the oceans.” I pointed out that the footprint of offshore wind will be gobsmackingly large. Eight states have set goals for offshore wind totaling some 28.5 gigawatts, and another 7.5 gigawatts is being targeted. If those states want 36 gigawatts of capacity, it will require installing about 3,600 offshore platforms.
For comparison, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, one of the most productive offshore oil and gas provinces on the planet, has about 1,900 platforms. Thus, if the offshore wind promoters have their way, the Eastern Seaboard alone could soon be carpeted with nearly twice as many offshore platforms as are now in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, one of the leases could put dozens of wind turbines right on top of one of the best scallop and squid fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard.
The latest round of litigation over offshore wind led me to do more research about the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the threats that it faces. One website, in particular, caught my eye. I will quote it in full as it is a forceful argument for protecting right whales:
“The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whale species in the world. The species formerly numbered in the thousands, but there are currently fewer than 500 individuals living in their remaining habitat on the U.S. east coast and Canada. Right whales were one of the most popular targets for whalers as early as the eleventh century; in fact, the moniker “right whale” comes from the fact that they were the right whales to hunt. Their slow speed, docile nature, coastal habitat, and tendency to feed at the surface made them both easy to find and easy to kill. Additionally, forty percent of a right whale’s body mass is low-density blubber, much higher than most other whale species. This means that dead right whales float on the surface, allowing whalers to collect the blubber without needing to haul the entire carcass onboard their ships.
As a result, North Atlantic right whales were heavily overhunted for many centuries. By the mid-1700s, the population in the North Atlantic was reduced to the point that whalers began focusing on other species. By 1935, the entire world population was estimated to be below 100 individuals. Finally, governments decided it was time to take action, and a global ban on hunting North Atlantic right whales went into effect in 1935.
Although the ban has allowed the population to recover slightly, the whale is still in grave danger of extinction from humans. A significant portion of North Atlantic right whale deaths are due to human activities; . . . . Because the North Atlantic right whale has such a small population and a low annual reproductive rate, a single whale death can have a significant negative impact on the species’ ability to recover. However, this also works in the other direction: preventing a single whale death can increase the chance of recovery.”
That’s a stirring call to defend the right whale and its habitat. And it’s readily available on the website of America’s “largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization” – the Sierra Club. Yes, that’s right. The Sierra Club is in favor of protecting right whales, at least in theory.
The Sierra Club has not filed any lawsuits against Vineyard Wind even though that project will be situated atop a known right whale habitat. Furthermore, the Sierra Club is ignoring a remarkable report published last July by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency’s findings deserve full quotation:
“Right whales are increasing their use of southern New England waters, including regions slated for offshore wind energy development, according to aerial survey data collected during the last decade. . . . Construction and operation of hundreds of wind turbines is likely to introduce increased ocean noise, vessel traffic and possibly habitat alteration. All of these factors have the potential to affect right whales. Increased vessel traffic in the region will bring with it a greater risk of vessel strikes, one of the leading causes of serious injury and death of right whales. Increased noise from wind turbine construction and operations and vessels could also directly impact important whale behaviors and interfere with the detection of critical acoustic cues. These types of impacts may also be associated with physiological stress and could affect the whales’ use of the region. (Emphasis added).”
For a moment, imagine if that same federal agency were talking about the potential impacts that would be caused by offshore oil and gas development, instead of wind energy. The hue and cry would be audible from here to Nantucket. In short, it appears that the Sierra Club wants to protect right whales, unless, of course, they happen to be swimming in the way of offshore wind development. In that case, well, never mind.
View full article here.