Developers are selling us impossible promises about offshore wind farms. “This reliable renewable energy resource is a game-changer for the New England grid,” says an advocacy group called New England for Offshore Wind. “It is our best chance to address the climate crisis, meet our future energy needs, and grow our economy simultaneously.”
But people are asking questions — and it’s not just about the questions, but also about who is asking them. When the liberal environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, a coalition of U.S. senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and a conservative Texas institute like mine come together to question an ocean-based wind farm project, something must be fishy.
Promoters of offshore wind farms say they provide abundant, renewable energy with no carbon emissions and little impact on the ocean environment — either above or below the water.
“We drive policy that ensures the responsible development of offshore wind that brings all stakeholders to the table to ensure people, the environment, and wildlife are treated with dignity and respect,” the promoters claim. If only it were true.
We at the Texas Public Policy Foundation have filed a lawsuit against one of the planned 1,400-square miles wind farms, Vineyard Wind I, on behalf of commercial fishing families. As we point out, in its urgency to get offshore wind projects approved, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management failed to conduct the proper environmental impact studies, the states jumping on board with this project failed to get input from the fishing industry regarding environmental and economic impacts, and reasonable alternatives to the sites chosen for the turbines were not considered.
That’s what led the National Resources Defense Council to raise its own questions.
“Strong protective measures are required to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and other marine wildlife during offshore wind survey activities,” the NRDC wrote on March 4. “Protections for our valuable marine wildlife are important at every stage of offshore wind development — from site assessment and characterization through construction and operations to decommissioning.”
Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (fewer than 350 remain) live and travel through the areas where Vineyard I and other projects are planned. In fact, NOAA has listed the waters off New England as critical habitat.
But at every stage of wind farm development, as NRDC points out, these majestic creatures are threatened. It starts with the sonar surveys used to map the seabed.
“Some of the soundwaves used in geophysical surveys overlap with frequencies for marine mammal hearing, meaning they can be detected by these animals,” the NRDC points out.
This can damage their hearing — their main sensory mechanism. The noise can drive them from their feeding grounds, their breeding areas, and their familiar migration routes. And the fast-moving research vessels also pose a risk of collisions, which are often fatal to the whales.
That’s why Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins of Maine and Warren have asked that more research be done before offshore wind turbines start going up. They’re also asking about economic impacts — particularly to the fisheries that sustain their state economies and literally put food on their tables.
Fishermen say trawling near and around those turbines would be dangerous, if not impossible. It’s not just the turbine towers and the massive concrete bases they require — it’s also the miles and miles of transmission lines, which have to be buried and covered over. The federal government itself admits that “due to the placement of the turbines, it is likely that the entire 75,614-acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation.”
For now, the focus is on New England. But offshore wind farms are planned all along the Atlantic seaboard and even the Gulf Coast. That’s why it’s important to get answers to these questions now. This remarkably diverse group of questioners won’t quit asking them.