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The Latest Culture War Starts With Dead Whales

The right wing and fossil fuel companies have funded a backlash to wind energy in New Jersey. Is it about to go nationwide?

A humback whale body lies next to a backhoe on the beach.
James Carbone/Newsday RM/Getty Images
The remains of a male humpback whale on Lido Beach, New York, on January 30

The ad opens with lush footage of humpback whales in the open ocean, set over somber cello music. “Hunted to near extinction, they rebounded against all the odds,” a narrator says. “But new peril lurks beneath the waves: offshore wind.” The images shift to whale carcasses being dragged off the beach. “Save the whales,” the narrator chants. “Dump New Jersey Democrats.”

This ad attacking New Jersey Democratic State Senator Vin Gopal, locked in a tight race for reelection in his 11th district, wasn’t paid for by some fringe environmental group. It was part of a five-figure ad buy from the Republican State Leadership Committee. The RSLC, in turn, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first half of this year from oil interests including Marathon Petroleum, Devon Energy, the American Petroleum Institute, and Energy Transfer.

The GOP isn’t known for championing wildlife, or for keeping oceans clean and free of industrial structures: For decades the national party has defended offshore drilling and protected companies that routinely spill oil into open waters. But in the past two years, opposition to offshore wind in places like New Jersey has been juiced up by Republicans as well as fossil fuel–funded groups outside the state, pointing to a spate of mysterious whale deaths as evidence of turbines’ supposed destructive potential. The local fight has gone national: Figures from Media Matters provided to The New Republic show that Fox News has run at least 55 segments—an average of more than a segment each week—for the past year linking whale deaths to offshore wind.

The campaign reached a fever pitch in New Jersey this fall, becoming a central part of the state’s GOP messaging in the November elections. Facebook groups rallied users around a roster of Republican candidates, some of whom hammered home anti-wind messaging throughout their campaigns. The pitch failed with most New Jersey voters: Democrats easily kept control of the state legislature. But they went to the ballot amid news that a big offshore wind project had been canceled, with the owner citing expensive delays. As the offshore wind industry runs into economic headwinds, and as projects up and down the coast face tougher paths to becoming reality, how much louder will the GOP’s dead whale culture war become?

The U.S. offshore wind project was always going to be ambitious. In 2021, the Biden administration set a goal of building 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by the end of the decade, making the technology a cornerstone of Biden’s clean energy agenda. Currently, there are just two working offshore wind farms in the United States, in Rhode Island and Virginia, generating about 0.042 GW of power. The administration has approved three new major wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, while several other projects are in various states of development up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

From the outset, wind advocates have positioned the industry as a clean energy jobs creator, a win-win technology that’s both good for the planet and good for local economies. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has made offshore wind a key component of his state’s net-zero goals, while a $478 million offshore wind manufacturing port is also planned on the Delaware River. Before the start of this month, there were two companies proposing to develop wind farms on four leases off the coast of southern New Jersey: Danish company Orsted, which would operate two projects called Ocean Wind 1 and 2; and Atlantic Shores, a partnership between Shell’s renewables division and EDF Renewables.

But while the Biden administration was busy promoting wind in the first years of his tenure, a coalition of GOP and fossil fuel interests mustered to oppose these plans. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, long a national leader in conservative politics, joined forces with fishermen’s interests in Massachusetts to oppose a wind farm there. Meanwhile the Caesar Rodney Institute, which is based in Delaware, set up astroturf groups up and down the coast to oppose offshore wind. Both of these organizations are members of the Koch-funded State Policy Network and have received funding from a variety of energy lobbying groups and fossil fuel companies. Their efforts have yielded some results. Protect Our Coast New Jersey, a group dedicated to opposing offshore projects in the state, and which has financial ties to the Caesar Rodney Institute, boasts one of the most popular anti-wind groups on Facebook, with at least 20,000 members.

These outside interests have had significant help from Mother Nature. Since 2016, humpback whales have experienced what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an “unusual mortality event” along the East Coast. In this time period, 29 whales have been found dead along the coast of New Jersey, eight in 2023 alone. There is currently no active wind turbine construction activity in New Jersey waters, and researchers believe these whale deaths were likely due to collisions with ships—something that could be exacerbated by climate change as warming waters change the migration patterns of some fish the whales eat. The NOAA recently said that sonar used in surveying the sites could disturb ocean life but was unlikely to jeopardize it. Unchecked climate change, meanwhile, could wipe out over a third of humpback whales’ breeding areas, along with endangering the broader oceanic ecosystem.

Opposition to offshore wind is nothing new: Wealthy Nimbys famously helped bring down a huge proposed wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in 2015. Across the country, local resistance to renewables of all kinds has been rising as the Biden administration implements its aggressive renewable energy targets. While research on offshore wind opposition specifically is relatively scant, a study published this summer on onshore wind opposition in the U.S. and Canada found that in rural areas, smaller groups of people—who tended to be wealthier and white—could significantly block local projects.

“We’re definitely seeing opposition [to wind energy] increase over time, in terms of the share of projects that see opposition,” Jessica Lovering, the executive director of the Good Energy Project and co-author of the study, told me.

But a nationwide left-right culture war around offshore wind, backed by fossil fuel money, doesn’t look like the Nimbyism of the past decade, when offshore wind was an unusual technology rather than a pillar of a Democratic president’s energy transition plan.

“The whole thing exploded with the whales,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. And the new opposition funded by fossil fuel interests in this election cycle is more “aggressive” than what came before, she added. In March, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement that despite the unusual whale deaths extending back seven years, it has only received complaints about the effects of offshore wind development recently.

The growing political split is reflected in poll numbers. A Monmouth University poll conducted in August found that just over half of New Jerseyans favor putting turbines off the coast, compared to nearly 80 percent in 2019. Breaking these numbers down by political party yields a huge split. Republican support declined dramatically, from 69 percent to 28 percent, while Democratic support has stayed relatively even; Republicans were also much more likely to believe that turbine construction was the cause of whale deaths.

On October 31, a week before the state’s local election day, Orsted announced it would pull the plug on both Ocean Wind 1 and 2, citing delays, supply chain challenges, and rising interest rates. The company attributed the decision to financial factors plaguing the industry as a whole. Regardless, Republicans in and out of New Jersey immediately claimed victory for the anti-wind movement.

President Trump took the opportunity to congratulate U.S. Representative Jeff Van Drew, an outspoken wind critic, on Truth Social. (“The whales, which are dying in record numbers because of these wind scams, are very happy tonight,” he wrote. “Way to go Jeff. The people of New Jersey love you!”) Meanwhile, Michael Shellenberger, a popular figure on the right who has been instrumental in fomenting distrust of wind operations, also declared the decision on X/Twitter a “victory,” reminding his followers, “This fight isn’t over. We still have other wind energy projects to stop.”

Some New Jersey GOP interests signaled that they intend to exploit offshore wind as a political issue far beyond this month’s elections or the Orsted decision, eyeing the issue as a way to engage voters in 2024. The Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that first caught the RSLC ad buy, also reported that a group called Fixing New Jersey spent tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook and Google ads against offshore wind. The group was founded, the Energy and Policy Institute noted, shortly after Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli lost to Phil Murphy in 2021, with the Ciattarelli campaign’s political director serving as the group’s executive director. After Orsted pulled its plans, Ciattarelli told his audience on Facebook, “We need to be vigilant in protecting our Jersey shore. Vote Republican.”

So far, this strategy hasn’t actually won elections. Not only did Gopal prevail over his Republican challenger, but several other GOP candidates endorsed by anti–offshore wind groups lost their bids as Democrats retained control of the state. Ramos-Busot thinks voters rejected the GOP’s vilification of both offshore wind and Democrats’ other climate policies, like electric cars and stoves. “What this race is telling us is that people at the shore, in [Gopal’s] district, are either neutral toward offshore wind or support it—but they’re not in opposition to it,” she said. “If that was the case, it would have shown a different result.”

But that doesn’t mean the GOP will abandon the approach. The issue could become analogous to trans rights: a culture-war topic that incites a small and vocal part of the base, that fails to correspond to electoral results but becomes part of the drumbeat of conservative media and fearmongering against Democratic policies. And while the economics of offshore wind may be operating independently of voter sentiment, even a small minority, like the loud groups opposed to wind projects up and down the coast, can still cause problems for future projects facing a tough financial situation.

“When the economics are right on the edge, project developers are going to have less resources to do these lengthy legal battles, or a lot of prolonged back-and-forth with a community,” Lovering said.

A week after the election, the Protect Our Coast Facebook group wasn’t counting its losses. Users kept sharing links warning of upcoming projects in the wake of the Orsted decision; moderators posted photos of a recent fundraising gala for the group, where speakers included a popular right-wing radio host. One member shared a photo of a whale-shaped cloud hovering over Atlantic City. “I think it’s a message to us all from Mother Ocean to keep moving forward!” she wrote. “We can make a difference.”