Tucker Carlson was worried about whales.
A fourth humpback had just washed up dead on a New Jersey beach in the span of a month, and the then-host of one of America’s top-rated cable programs said he knew why.
“The government’s offshore wind projects, which are enriching their donors, are killing a huge number of whales,” Carlson declared in a Jan. 13 segment on Fox News titled “The Biden Whale Extinction.”
A representative of the fishing industry echoed the message, telling Carlson’s millions of viewers that wind companies’ use of sonar to map the seabed was driving humpbacks to their deaths. Scientists call the claim baseless. But the Fox News show offered it a national megaphone — helping it become a rallying cry for an increasingly coordinated network of activists who are fighting wind projects from New England to Delaware.
Now that movement has succeeded in galvanizing political opposition against a key plank of President Joe Biden’s climate strategy.
The wind critics include a scattering of people and groups spanning the political spectrum — among them, a commercial fishing trade group from Long Island, a wealthy Rhode Island doctor who describes herself as “very liberal Democrat,” and the GOP-supporting owner of a D.C.-based car dealership empire.
But the anti-wind push is also getting financial, legal and organizational support from national far-right and libertarian groups, including those with a history of spreading falsehoods about climate change and downplaying the risks that offshore oil drilling poses to marine life, according to interviews and documents reviewed by POLITICO’s E&E News.
This story is based on interviews with a dozen people who are organizing efforts to oppose offshore wind projects, as well as scientists and environmentalists. E&E News also reviewed tax documents, regulatory filings and emails obtained under New Jersey’s Freedom of Information Act.
The wind opponents are gaining traction.
Some Republicans in Congress have called for a moratorium on offshore wind projects. In New Jersey, where the debate has been particularly fierce, more than 40 mayors organized by a D.C. lobbyist called for a wind moratorium, and a recent poll found that more residents support halting wind projects (39 percent) than building them (35 percent). Wind detractors have packed public meetings in Rhode Island, and opponents have filed lawsuits in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey to halt projects.
“If polar bears were the symbol of climate change, the whales are a symbol of pristine oceans,” said Sterling Burnett, who leads environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, one of the conservative movement’s most public critics of accepted climate science.
Twenty-five beachings of humpback whales have been reported from Massachusetts to North Carolina in 2023 alone, according to federal data, including seven in New Jersey and five in New York.
Scientists say offshore wind does pose potential risks to marine wildlife. But they worry the controversy over sonar and humpback whales is distracting from attempts to protect the giant mammals from real dangers related to offshore wind, such as increased boat traffic or the construction of projects near an important feeding ground.
And they say those harms need to be weighed against a far greater threat to marine life — the planet-altering impact of burning fossil fuels. Soaring temperatures endanger the entire marine ecosystem, including whales, by blanching coral reefs, altering feeding grounds and changing migration patterns.
The right whale, for instance, suffered a serious setback in the last decade when it began appearing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, leading to a string of deadly vessel strikes.
“Climate change is the big story,” said Barbara Sullivan-Watts, a retired marine biologist from the University of Rhode Island. “If we prevent building renewable energy — there is a big attempt to prevent solar farms and offshore wind farms — we’re missing the big picture.”
Some scientists are even more blunt.
Michael Moore, a scientist who studies whale deaths for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, called the claim that sonar is killing humpbacks a “conspiracy theory.”
Wind opponents are “just NIMBYs,” said Robert Kenney, a marine biologist who retired from the University of Rhode Island after four decades studying the endangered North Atlantic right whale. “You lie enough and use social media to spread it, and there is a certain group of people who believe it.”
200 dead whales
The uproar over whales comes as developers begin to install foundations for the country’s first two major offshore wind projects off Massachusetts and New York. Both are slated to begin producing electricity later this year — provided they survive their pending legal challenges.
The rise in opposition complicates the climate strategies of the Biden administration and several Northeastern states, which are looking to offshore wind to slash emissions and power the economy. If offshore wind projects fail, they will need to find other large sources of carbon-free power.
In some ways, today’s fight resembles the first battle over offshore wind 20 years ago, when wealthy beachfront property owners such as the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and the fossil fuel mogul William Koch helped defeat a plan to install 130 turbines off Cape Cod.
The stakes are higher now.
In 2021, Biden announced a plan to power 10 million homes with offshore wind by the end of the decade. Reaching that milestone would reduce carbon emissions 78 million tons by 2030 — roughly equivalent to what all the power plants in New York, New Jersey and New England emitted last year.
Under Biden, the U.S. has moved to open parts of the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico to offshore wind leasing. But development is moving fastest in the waters along the Northeast, where generating electricity from ocean turbines is a cornerstone of states’ climate efforts. Developers plan to install more than 3,400 turbines and lay about 9,800 miles of transmission cable over 2.3 million acres of ocean along the East Coast — an area larger than Delaware.
“Every study shows that all the clean energy goals of the Northeastern states are dependent on offshore wind,” said Johannes Pfeifenberger, an economist at the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, who has studied the offshore wind industry on behalf of environmental groups. “Every megawatt-hour of offshore wind production will displace a megawatt-hour of natural gas production, which will reduce emissions.”
The clean energy push is also getting backing this time from many of the world’s largest oil companies. BP, Shell, Total Energies and Equinor are involved in offshore wind projects planned along the East Coast. That has not stopped some environmental groups from accusing the wind opponents of acting as a front for fossil fuel interests.
The opposition to the new wave of wind grew slowly. At first, it was largely limited to commercial fishermen, who feared that the installation of sea turbines would destroy their fishing grounds, and a handful of beach groups, which argued that glinting towers on the horizon would drive tourists away and depress property values.
The opponents made little headway with the public. Then, humpback whales and dolphins started washing up dead around New York and New Jersey late last year.
January’s Fox News segment gave the movement a national boost.
The guest on Carlson’s program was Meghan Lapp, a prominent offshore wind critic who works at a Rhode Island seafood processor called Seafreeze. She told Carlson that wind companies’ use of sonar was like “carpet bombing the ocean floor with intense sound,” but acknowledged it can’t be definitively linked to whale strandings. Instead, she argued that the surveys were the only change to the ocean in recent years.
“Now, magically there are a bunch of humpback whales dying,” she said.
Seafreeze is suing to halt construction of Vineyard Wind, the country’s first major offshore wind farm, arguing that it would destroy fishing grounds and threaten the right whale. Other plaintiffs in the case include the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a trade group, and several other fishing companies.
They are represented by lawyers from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative organization with a history of promoting fossil fuels and questioning the dangers of climate change. A federal judge recently rejected their request to halt construction of Vineyard Wind, a 62-turbine project planned south of Martha’s Vineyard. The fishing companies appealed the decision.
Lapp and Fox News did not respond to requests for comment. Carlson, who has since embarked on his own media venture, did not respond to requests for comment.
But when Lapp testified at a March field hearing in New Jersey hosted by four Republican House members, she said fishermen faced “annihilation” at the hands of federal officials who permit wind projects.
“Offshore wind is the single greatest threat to U.S. commercial fishing,” Lapp testified.
Scientists who study marine mammals paint a different picture of what’s behind the humpback deaths. For one thing, they say the rapid rise in ocean temperatures driven by climate change is pushing whale species into new territory. As a result, humpback whales appear to be chasing their prey, a small fish called menhaden, closer to shore.
“When foraging in nearshore waters, the whales are in closer proximity to major shipping channels,” Peter Thomas, executive director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, told a gathering convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in March. The humpbacks’ presence close to land increases the risk of vessel strikes, he said.
Scientists have expressed even more concern about wind’s impact on the right whale, whose numbers have plummeted to fewer than 350 animals largely due to fatal vessel strikes and entanglements with fishing gear. The right whale has been observed with growing frequency in recent years off of southern New England, where as many as 16 wind projects could eventually be built.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and a group of