Unfounded claims about offshore wind threatening whales have surfaced as a flashpoint in the fight over the future of renewable energy.
In recent months, conservatives including former President Donald Trump have claimed construction of offshore wind turbines is killing the giant animals.
Scientists say there is no credible evidence linking offshore wind farms to whale deaths. But that hasn’t stopped conservative groups and ad hoc “not in my back yard”-style anti-development groups from making the connection.
The Associated Press sorts fact from fiction when it comes to whales and wind power as the rare North Atlantic right whale’s migration season gets underway:
Where are U.S. offshore wind projects?
To date, two commercial offshore wind farms are under construction in the United States. Danish wind energy developer Ørsted and the utility Eversource are building South Fork Wind, located 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Montauk Point, New York. Ørsted announced Dec. 7 that the first of its 12 turbines there is now sending electricity onto the grid. Vineyard Wind is building a 62-turbine wind farm 15 miles (24 kilometers) off Massachusetts. Both plan to open by early next year, and other large offshore wind projects are obtaining permits.
There are also two pilot projects — five turbines off Rhode Island and two off Virginia. The Biden administration aims to power 10 million homes with offshore wind by 2030 — a key piece of its climate goals.
Lawsuits from community groups delayed Ørsted’s two large offshore wind projects in New Jersey and the company recently announced it’s cancelling those projects. That decision was based on their economic viability and had nothing to do with offshore wind opposition in New Jersey, said David Hardy, group executive vice president and CEO Americas at Ørsted.
Are U.S. wind farms causing whale deaths?
Experts say there’s no evidence that limited wind farm construction on the Atlantic Coast has directly resulted in any whale deaths, despite politically motivated statements suggesting a link.
Rumors began to swirl after 2016, when an unusual number of whales started to be found dead or stranded on New England beaches — a trend that predates major offshore wind farm construction that began this year.
“With whale strandings along the Northeast earlier this year in places like New Jersey, the reality is that it’s not from offshore wind,” said Aaron Rice, a marine biologist at Cornell University.
In answering questions about whale strandings earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that around 40% of recovered whale carcasses showed evidence of death from fishing gear entanglement or vessel strikes. The others could not be linked to a specific cause.
In Europe, where offshore wind has been developed for more than three decades, national agencies also have not found causal links between wind farms and whale deaths.
Meanwhile, U.S. scientists are collecting data near offshore wind farms to monitor any possible impacts short of fatality, such as altered behavior or changes to migration routes. This research is still in preliminary stages, said Doug Nowacek, a marine biologist at Duke University who helped put trackers on whales this summer off Massachusetts as part of a 5-year federally-funded study.