Thar She Blows
“The older you get the stronger the wind gets - and it's always in your face.” – Pablo Picasso
Up until the late 19th century, whale oil was a prized commodity used for illumination and machine lubrication. Demand for the valuable liquid, obtained by processing whale blubber, had grown so rapidly that the giant mammals were nearly hunted out of existence. At its apex, whaling was estimated to be the fifth-largest industry in the US, employing approximately 70,000 people.
The unofficial global capital of the whaling industry was once Nantucket, the tiny but wealthy island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. To this day, the island’s culture remains centered around the iconic whale. Nantucket High School’s mascot is Hank the Harpoon Man, and the town is home to the Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum, a must-visit stop for the many tourists who descend upon the island each summer. The highlight of the museum’s collection is the skeleton of a 46-foot male sperm whale, described as “perhaps the most dramatic installation of a whale skeleton ever displayed.”
Not surprisingly, locals along the Atlantic Coast are quite passionate about preserving the whales that remain, and a recent spike in whale strandings is pitting several small grassroots organizations against powerful national environmental groups, federal and state governments, and the wind industry. Locals are convinced the burgeoning offshore wind industry is to blame for the deaths, and they have been spurred into action. One relatively new non-profit – Nantucket Residents Against Turbines – is even suing various federal agencies to put a halt to the Vineyard Wind offshore wind project, arguing that allowing the project to proceed “will exacerbate threats to the North Atlantic Right Whale which has a population of fewer than 360 individuals.” Here’s how NPR recently framed the developing controversy around whale deaths (emphasis added throughout):
“Researchers are trying to figure out a mystery: Why are so many humpback whales, right whales, and other large mammals dying along the U.S. East Coast? One possible explanation is a shift in food habits. And while theories are circulating that blame the growing offshore wind industry, scientists say there's no proof to support that idea.
Since Dec. 1, at least 18 reports have come in about large whales being washed ashore along the Atlantic Coast, according to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The losses are hitting populations that were already under watch, due to ongoing rises in unexpected deaths.”
In stark contrast to the treatment given to the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries by government regulators, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an entire Frequently Asked Questions page where it confidently and definitively absolves the wind industry of any and all potential blame. Here’s a sampling:
“Is U.S. offshore wind development linked to any whale deaths?
No. At NOAA Fisheries, we work with our partners to analyze and understand the causes of death when we are able, following the science and data. At this point, there is no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no specific links between recent large whale mortalities and currently ongoing surveys for offshore wind development. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events.”
While we have no particularly strong view as to the cause of these whale deaths (and any such assessment would be beyond our team’s expertise), we highlight this thorny issue – and the obvious political hypocrisies it reveals – to emphasize once again that when it comes to the so-called green energy transition, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Although President Biden has set an incredibly ambitious goal of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, the industry itself is reeling from technology challenges, elevated feedstock inflation, and far more pushback from locals than many expected. How does wind energy compare to other energy resources available? Can the industry withstand the onslaught of opposition heading its way, or will the investments earmarked by the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act dissolve into just another government boondoggle? Let’s dig in.