The stranding of humpback whales on the east coast of the United States earlier this year gave the fossil fuel lobby a new angle on their opposition to wind turbine technology and renewable technology: whales are being threatened by offshore wind farms.
Republican presidential contender Donald Trump told a rally in South Carolina in September that these “windmills” were driving whales “crazy”, inflicting death in such numbers that they were washing up on shore “on a weekly basis”.
The technology is being studied, and there are various environmental concerns, often specific to their intended locales.
The field is complex, as work commissioned by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an adjunct of the US Department of the Interior, outlines. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concerned the Nantucket Shoals region, an area of complex hydrodynamics and ecology.
The authors acknowledged that large turbines of the size planned for the region had not, as yet, been built in US waters and would therefore require extensive modelling on oceanographic effects, notably on zooplankton populations upon which whales feed.
Rob Deaville of the Zoological Society of London’s Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme also admitted that disruptions to marine wildlife can take place in the construction phase of windfarms given the presence of percussive noise.
Animals, such as porpoises or dolphins, “may move out of that area while you’re installing the wind farms, but then the longer-term picture: in some areas they may never come back, in some they may come back in larger numbers than before”.
Such concerns, albeit cautious, are not the same as claims of mass whale mortality that has become a hobby horse for opponents of renewable energy sources.
Look behind the newly converted whale-loving types and you are likely to find an avid fossil-fuel lobbyist or someone advocating the merits of nuclear energy.
The issue has also made its way to Australia.
In New South Wales, residents of the Hunter and Illawarra regions woke up to posters making the claim about the harmful effects of wind turbine technology.
A roadside billboard in Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, featured a beached whale with a background of wind turbines, sporting the words: “Stop Port Stephens Offshore Wind Farms.”
Fictional articles have also made similar claims. One which purports to have been published in the academic journal Marine Policy asserted that offshore wind farms in the Illawarra and Hunter would result in an annual whale death toll of 400.
But the journal’s editor-in-chief, Quentin Hanich, found no evidence of the phantom study, with its alleged origins in the University of Tasmania, which had been shared on a Facebook group “No Offshore Wind Farm for the Illawarra”.
“We never received this imaginary paper … I am seeing no evidence that the study ever took place.”
None of this troubles the Coalition. Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has claimed, erroneously, that there had been “no environmental consideration of what these huge wind turbines, 260 to 280 metres out of the water, will mean.”
Another example of a fossil-fuel MP turned green populist is Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan. He recently told Sky News that “massive amounts of wind farms, and solar panels which take up enormous amounts of land … destroy koala habitat [and have] a massive impact on our environment … we destroy the environment to try and save it”.
Canavan has campaigned against a net zero emissions policy and could barely conceal his delight at the wording of the 2021 Glasgow Climate Change communique that countries “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal burning.
For Canavan, this meant that COP26 had given Australia the “green light” to keep digging and “supply the world with more coal because that’s what brings people out of poverty”.
The anti-wind farm campaigners ignore the inconvenient fact that almost all the humpback whale strandings showed signs of being stuck by vessels.
In February, the Marine Mammal Commission said that “there is no evidence to link these strandings to offshore wind energy development”.
Greenpeace published a piece in November stating that “offshore wind farms aren’t killing whales”. It concluded that “building offshore wind is way, way better for ocean wildlife than fossil fuels, especially offshore gas and oil”.
No single peer-reviewed study, Greenpeace said, has found that offshore wind farms are responsible for whale mortality.
Fishing, ship strikes and oceanic disruptions arising from climate change are the greatest threat to various whale populations.
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]