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Dead whales and tough economic conditions are complicating Biden’s massive wind energy boom


The school bus-sized humpback whale that washed up on a narrow beach in Brigantine, NJ this month weighed 12 tons and took a heavy emotional toll on coastal towns that helplessly witnessed a spate of such deaths.

The humpback whale was one of nine large whales stranded for six weeks on or near beaches in the northeast, not far from where developers of hundreds of offshore wind turbines are engaged in a wave of preconstruction activity. The deaths have sparked backlash against the projects, even though government scientists say they are unrelated.

It is the latest in a series of threats to a fledgling offshore wind industry that climate advocates say is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rising costs from inflation and labor shortages are leading developers to say their projects may not be profitable. A series of lawsuits and pending federal restrictions to protect sensitive wildlife could further increase costs. The uncertainty has clouded expectations for massive growth in offshore wind power in the US, which the Biden administration and several state governments have bet big on in their climate plans.

“We’re trying to prop up an entire industry in the United States, and we have natural growing pains,” said Cindy Muller, a Houston attorney who leads the Houston office and co-chairs the offshore wind initiative at the Jones Walker law firm.

State leaders and the Biden administration have turned to the industry because the power of offshore wind can produce a rare round-the-clock source of greenhouse gas-free electricity — and one that will be difficult for future governments to undo once the turbines are in the ground. The government has set a target of generating 30 gigawatts of new electricity from offshore wind energy by 2030. That’s about 3 percent of what the country needs to get to 80 percent clean electricity by then, according to estimates by a team led by University of California at Berkeley researchers.

The industry paid more than $5 billion to the federal government for the right to build offshore as the Biden administration made available a large number of leases last year. Some of the world’s largest energy companies, including BP, Shell, Equinor and Duke Energy, are now planning to spend billions more building thousands of skyscraper-sized turbines off US shores that will produce enough energy to power about 7 million homes, according to the American Clean Power Association, a renewable energy trade group.

The nation’s first large-scale project began construction just over a year ago off the coast of Massachusetts, and surveying vessels are now mapping the East Coast for the next wave of construction. That work is taking place in the same area where the extinction of humpback whales began seven years ago and where scientists and federal officials are now working to prevent the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals.

“We are seeing an unprecedented number of whales dying here while industrial activity is taking place on a scale that has never happened before in these waters,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a local nonprofit organization. “Why isn’t this being investigated? Why do these companies get a pass?”

Achieving the Biden government’s goal would require the installation of thousands of machines, which will tower as high as three Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other when their blades reach for the sky. The blades alone can be the length of a football field.

But it’s been slow. There are currently only seven operating offshore wind turbines in the entire United States. In Europe there are more than 5,000. China also has thousands of them.

“This industry has had a long, frustrating, sometimes slow start,” said Klaus Skoust Moeller, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, which is finally laying the cable for a massive wind project 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard that is years behind schedule amid the regulatory delays. and lawsuits from opponents. “It makes no sense. We have cities ready to invest. It’s there for the taking.”

That puts the U.S. wind industry at a turning point, with 17 East Coast projects in active development, almost all facing significant headwinds. The New Jersey utility Public Service Enterprise Group said last week it would sell its 25 percent stake in the Ocean Wind 1 project. And last fall, three other developers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic moved to renegotiate their contracts, saying they can no longer afford to provide power for the prices promised due to skyrocketing costs.

Shareholders are pressuring companies not to invest in more projects than the wave that has already begun, said Paul Zimbardo, an analyst at Bank of America. The delays make it unlikely that the Biden administration will meet its 2030 target, lawyers and analysts said.

“As we build out this industry, there will be bumps in the road,” Elizabeth Klein, the newly installed director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said Thursday at a meeting of U.S. mayors in Washington. “We will continue to work with communities along the coast and across the country to make this a reality.”

The companies have influential allies in their corner outside the White House. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other major environmental groups are working to move the projects forward.

“The biggest threat to the ocean ecosystem is climate change,” said Shay O’Reilly, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club in New York City, which is backing a 130-turbine project that would span 80,000 acres of ocean south of Long Island. .

Proponents of harnessing the ocean wind face struggles on many fronts.

Fisheries industry groups fear regulators are overlooking potential harm to marine life and access to fisheries in the rush to get turbines running. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an oil company-funded advocacy group working to halt renewable energy expansions, is providing the financial backing and legal expertise for lawsuits filed by New England fishing companies to halt the Vineyard Wind project . The foundation is taking the case of the whales to court.

Even Fox News conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, a longtime opponent of environmentalists, devoted a segment this month to the plight of whales off the Atlantic coast.

“Where are all the liberals who used to care about whales and the environment and the ocean and the land?” Carlson said on his program. “They are all gone or are getting money from green electricity.”

Amid concerns that the whale deaths are linked to wind energy development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration convened reporters for a press conference to highlight evidence that says otherwise.

An autopsy of the humpback whale that washed ashore in Brigantine this month revealed bruising from blunt force trauma consistent with an attack from a boat, said Sheila Dean, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a New Jersey nonprofit that the response to the stranding. But she cautioned that it could take time to study samples from the stranded whales and determine the cause of death.

Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said whales face “a range of risks” when turbines are built, such as increased shipping traffic and potential changes in ecology. But that ecological change, he said, “needs much further research to really understand its significance.”

Right whales were the main concern, and the Biden administration is working on guidance, expected this year, to protect their migration routes.

Meanwhile, wind developers, environmentalists and fishing companies are battling over new federal speed limits for construction vessels, aimed at preventing whale attacks, also expected this year. The offshore wind industry warns against too rigid limits. They say it would force developers to put ships that are effectively floating hotels on project sites at sea, an extreme cost but the best potential alternative to prohibitive transit times to get workers to and from shore.

Lobbyists and analysts said that even if the companies lose some of these battles, offshore wind projects are likely to survive. Timothy Fox, vice president of research at ClearView Energy Partners, called them “a tall but surmountable hurdle.”

States are deeply invested, a crucial source of support. Several East Coast states, California and Louisiana have pledged to secure 74 gigawatts of offshore wind energy — enough to power tens of millions of homes, according to a tally by the American Clean Power Association.

At the US Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington last week, discussion of the immense investment potential for cities overshadowed concerns about all the setbacks facing the projects. The group’s energy committee chair, Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Vineyard Wind is based, marveled at how much investment went into that company’s single project.

“It’s the equivalent of three NFL stadiums,” he said. “This is a big, big industry. There is a lot going on right now. It will be relevant for many cities.”

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