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Thursday, April 13, 2023

Whale of a Tale

Local Anti-Wind Crowd Spins Yarns

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

As Earth spins into a deepening climate crisis, how we continue to power society will determine our fate. So far, our actions have been guided by greed, selfishness, and lies.

Bad actors and special interests have created a bubble of climate misinformation, downplaying the significant negative impacts associated with the burning of methane (natural gas), oil, coal, gasoline, diesel, and propane. 

The goal of these misinformation campaigns is to manipulate public perception and sow doubt and confusion that leads to inaction and allows the fossil fuel industry to continue to rake in record profits. (The industry has reaped $2.8 billion a day in profit for the past 50 years, a 2022 analysis found. Since 1970, the vast total pocketed by fossil fuel companies and petrostates is $52 trillion.)

In the meantime, continued reliance on these poisonous fuels is putting us and the future of many other species at risk.

This deception has now moved out to sea, where it hides behind whales. Windmills cause cancer, and now offshore wind turbines are responsible for the slaughter of the planet’s largest animals.

A post on one local anti-wind blog is titled “Ocean Wind Killing Whales To Save Polar Bears.” A local anti-wind website makes this unfounded claim: “Industrializing the ocean with offshore wind farms will drive whales to extinction, decrease oxygen production, compromise carbon dioxide absorption, threaten fish stocks, decrease biodiversity, and diminish ocean currents.”

The status quo is already doing all of that and much worse.

Whenever we publish a story about offshore wind, comments below the story, emails to staff, and letters to the editor quickly appear, claiming these water-based turbines are ruining the acidifying marine environment.

One of these emails recently claimed, “Sonar is used while constructing ocean wind turbines. Ocean Wind Turbines kill whales.” It included a link to a story with this lead:

“When naval ships and other sea vessels use sonar, many whale species flee for their lives; some even strand themselves on beaches in a desperate attempt to escape. Now, scientists have discovered the most likely reason: The loud sounds trigger the same fear response as when the animals hear calls emitted by one of their most terrifying predators: killer whales.”

The story makes no mention of offshore wind turbines.

No energy source is benign. From installation to operation, they all come with consequences — environmental, societal, and cultural. Some more than others. Legitimate concerns (e.g., not infringing upon whale migration corridors) must be studied, discussed, mitigated, and/or avoided. 

Renewable energy shouldn’t be called clean, but it is a whole lot cleaner than fossil fuels, especially when it is sited responsibly. It’s why Rhode Island’s failure to effectively incentivize the development of solar on rooftops, carports, and already-damaged areas will haunt future generations.

The concerns of southern New England’s anti-offshore wind crowd, however, never spill over to the polluting gas and oil platforms that mar many of the waters off the U.S. coast, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Probably because there are no such rigs in Rhode Island Sound.

They don’t mention sonar is used to detect leaks from offshore fossil fuel infrastructure. They fail to note ocean military training drills use sonar, and live munitions. They disregard the fact the primary causes of mortality and serious injury for many whales, most notably the North Atlantic right whale, are from entanglements with fishing gear and vessel strikes.

Even though data show that North Atlantic right whale mortalities from fishing entanglements continue to occur at levels five times higher than the species can withstand, the anti-wind crowd isn’t calling for fishing gear to be pulled from local waters or the use of ropeless fishing technology made mandatory. They aren’t demanding vessels be equipped with technology that monitors the presence of whales in shipping lanes.

They ignore the fact the development of offshore wind is the most scrutinized form of renewable energy. After reading this column, they will allege I and/or ecoRI News are in the pocket of Big Wind. We’re not. (A few wind energy companies have advertised with us, but they didn’t spend nearly enough to bankroll a golden parachute, or even a reporter’s salary for a month.)

The anti-wind crowd doesn’t offer any real solutions to drastically reduce the amount of heat-trapping, polluting, and health-harming greenhouse gases that humans are relentlessly spewing into the atmosphere.

Are we supposed to do nothing to mitigate the emergency we created? Should we just keep applying pressure until the system breaks?

Yes, at least according to those who like to blame China for the climate crisis. It’s a common comment on renewable energy stories, mostly likely generated by Russian troll farms or Koch brothers-paid insurgents. This comment was posted under a recent story about offshore wind:

“People freaked out over global CO2 had best realize that China is the main global emitter — as well as the source of solar and wind equipment manufactured primarily from a coal energy base (not to mention employing horrendous practices such as using child labor to mine needed materials for their products). Buying panels and turbines from them in essence contributes mightily to CO2. Real environmentalists should focus more on countering the threat from China and be more accepting of what can be transitional, small-footprint energy sources like natural gas and nuclear. US developers and China are making big money from US subsidized solar and wind — so I understand much of the passion to push these projects on the nation.”

There’s so much deception in that paragraph it would take another article to sift through all of it. But let’s examine three of the misinformation nuggets:

Since 1751 the human world has emitted more than 1.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. The United States has emitted more climate emissions than any other country, nearly 400 billion tons or about 25% of historical emissions, according to Our World in Data

Carbon Brief says humans have pumped some 2,500 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere since 1850, with the United States responsible for the most, about 20% of the global total. Currently, the top three greenhouse gas emitters — China, the United States, and India — contribute 42.6% of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for only 2.9%, according to the World Resources Institute.

Globally, governments spend more than $500 billion annually on fossil fuel subsidies, according to a 2020 report. Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion a year, according to the Environment and Energy Study Institute.

While it takes energy — most of it, at this moment anyway, from fossil fuel burning — to manufacture solar panels and turbine blades, it also requires the same energy to build fossil fuel infrastructure and nuclear reactors.

Another go-to comment is that industrial wind turbines, on land or at sea, kill birds. They do, but, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the biggest threat to the avian species we like to watch is the millions of acres of habitat that are lost or degraded every year due to development, agriculture, and forestry practices. 

Millions of birds are directly killed by collisions with human-made structures, such as building glass, communication towers, electrical lines, vehicles, and, yes, wind turbines. Cats also kill lots of birds.

Few if any of the names, social-media handles or email addresses of the local anti-wind crowd appeared during our extensive coverage of the fossil fuel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville. They didn’t create websites and start blogging about the dangers of the planned natural gas/diesel facility.

They’re speaking up now because several offshore wind projects have been proposed for the waters off southern New England. They don’t like it, because they own multimillion-dollar waterfront homes in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, or live near the region’s coast.

If these renewable energy projects were instead proposed for the Gulf of Mexico, we likely wouldn’t have heard a peep from these concerned whale watchers. If these offshore turbines were instead proposed for open space in view of their second homes, the whales would be forgotten and it would be all about birds and bats.

The local anti-wind crowd enjoys the benefits of the energy generated by Burrillville’s existing power plant, the power plant on the bank’s of Providence’s polluted waterfront, and from the oil rigs off the coast of Texas and Louisiana to blog, email, and tweet (recent example: “WOW. Just WOW. How much does B$G W$ND ‘donate’ to your cause? You should be embarrassed for having published this. Get up the curve with some facts and science.”) about the evils of offshore wind.

A recent white paper authored by a group of local anti-wind crusaders is filled with wind dread and 150 citations that are supposed to portend the atrocities offshore renewable energy production will unleash.

The paper goes to great lengths to discredit offshore wind energy. Some of the leaps are quite impressive.

It claims offshore wind isn’t really green — honestly, that label really means nothing; what is important is the fact renewable energy is significantly cleaner than the burning of fossil fuels — because of (1) indirect sources of carbon dioxide produced during the installation of wind turbines, such as cement production; (2) plankton destruction; (3) increased biofouling of artificial reefs; and (4) the overseas mining of rare earth metals.

Indirect sources of CO2 are also emitted when building power plants, offshore rigs, and dams, but those indirect climate emissions will decrease as more and more cleaner energy is added to the power grid. Eventually, the cycle would be broken.

Marine plankton may be at risk of extinction as the planet continues to warm, according to a 2020 study. Plankton living in the world’s coldest waters surrounding Antarctica are at the highest risk of disappearing. The study noted that as global temperatures rise, it’s unlikely that marine plankton populations will make it through uncompromised.

Offshore wind turbines are being planned/built to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not as artificial reefs. Yes, turbine bases are often touted for producing marine habitat, but they don’t come close to the real thing. The problem is climate change is putting natural coral reef ecosystems at risk. Warming marine waters cause thermal stress that contributes to coral bleaching and infectious disease.

Mining for rare earth metals is environmentally destructive and frequently socially unjust, but so too is mountaintop removal mining, mining for tar sands, and extracting oil from land and sea. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas releases large amounts of methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas.

The paper makes the connection that bats killed by offshore wind turbines will allow mosquito populations to rise, thereby increasing the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika, West Nile, and eastern equine encephalitis. 

Spinning turbine blades do kill bats, but these winged mammals have bigger concerns, including widespread habitat destruction and fragmentation; white-nose syndrome, a fatal fungal disease of hibernating bats; and accelerated climate change.

Some of the paper’s claims are profoundly asinine:

“Given the health consequences of biodiversity loss, expansive wind farm installations could violate the internationally recognized Human Right to Health.”

The burning of fossil fuels surely must violate our right to health, especially for those humans who live near these polluting facilities — you know, low-wealth families and people of color.

“Wind farms can increase water and air temperatures, redistribute humidity, and alter atmospheric flow, thereby modifying local weather patterns and regional climate.”

That is exactly what the burning of fossil fuels is doing, just at a far greater scale and pace.

The paper’s authors make the claim that offshore wind projects will “interfere with strategic areas of national defense and transportation safety.” A ship crashing into a wind turbine, or an oil rig, is certainly a possibility, but how does offshore wind impact national security? They don’t explain.

Their solution to the climate crisis is to immediately convert coal plants in the United States to natural gas. They also like the future potential of fusion, and the idea of floating solar cells that can be “safely installed on reservoirs.” They say solar panels along highways makes sense — an idea the state of Rhode Island has failed to grasp.

The paper concludes that, “Neither wind nor the ocean are inexhaustible, and our willful ignorance of these limitations could drive climate change beyond the tipping point.”

Two centuries of burning fossil fuels has already brought us precariously close to that point.

Buried in the 23 pages, however, is a bit of honesty: the ruination of viewscapes. The paper’s authors say they are concerned about vacations being wrecked by the sight of wind turbines, some of which would be 18 miles or more offshore.

“Although some visitors may be comforted by the sight of turbines stretching 20 miles across the horizon, others may prefer the pristine beauty of a natural ocean view and will choose to travel elsewhere, harming the economy. The visual impact will affect over 600 popular destinations, including 178 public beaches in MA and RI.”

To make that comment appear more fact than opinion, a citation is included — a 32-page report titled Economic Impact of Visitors in Rhode Island 2020 prepared for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. It makes no mention of offshore wind turbines.

The views they are actually concerned about are from their seaside decks and beachfront properties. The same reason the Kennedys opposed Cape Wind.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.