The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and N.J. Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) announced April 19 nearly $2 million in additional funding to further study the safe and ecologically responsible development of offshore wind.
While much of the heavy lifting has yet to begin, the early work of New Jersey’s offshore wind projects, which NJBIZ has reported on extensively, has centered around sonar mapping of the ocean floor. That work is what critics say is leading to this current rash of marine deaths.
As dead whales and dolphins continue to wash up on our shores, calls to pause offshore wind activity until more is learned have mounted with opponents of the developments pointing to the deaths as a sign that maybe things are moving too fast.
So far, the federal agencies that monitor this activity – such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) – say that there is no clear link between the sonar mapping and this trend of marine life deaths. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, based in Brigantine, has also not found any correlation thus far, as it continues to conduct necropsies.
As calls to push pause have grown, Gov. Phil Murphy has pointed to the lack of correlation concluded by those different agencies as a reason to continue with offshore development, a key part of his clean energy plan for the Garden State.
But while the calls for a moratorium first started with some environmental groups opposed to offshore wind and Republicans who haven been critical of Murphy’s clean energy goals, in recent weeks more Democrats have begun to express increasing concern about the need to learn more about these deaths, however employing a different rationale from, and certainly not aligning with, the governor’s critics.
Just this week, the Democratic members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Brenda Mallory, the chair of the White House Council on the Environmental Quality, demanding real solutions in response to the death of marine mammals off New Jersey’s coast. The members also asked the Biden Administration to do more to address vessel strikes and entanglements, which have been pointed to as reasons for the deaths.
That correspondence was also critical of some rush-to-judgment to immediately blame offshore wind for the marine mammal deaths, pointing to an increase in deaths that was officially recognized as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) in 2016.
“We write regarding the recent deaths of whales off the coast of New Jersey and to urge your office to propose evidence-based recommendations to Congress that will mitigate the threats facing marine mammals. While we greatly appreciate the administration’s close monitoring of individual whales’ health and its investigation of deaths, more must be done to address the vessel strikes and entanglements that are the major causes of whale deaths.
“We also urge you to keep in mind that there are unscientific efforts to blame recent offshore wind pre-construction activity for the ongoing humpback whale and critically endangered North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Events that were first declared in 2016 and 2017,” the letter said.
That message followed one in March sent by a group of senators, including New Jersey’s representatives, Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats, to Janet Coit, assistant administrator for Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We write to express our shared concern about the ongoing Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) for humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales (NARWs) in the U.S. Atlantic and to request information about whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requires additional resources to adequately respond to these UMEs,” the senators wrote.
While the Democrats have focused their concern on issues such as that already-existing UME, vessel strikes and entanglements, Republicans have focused on offshore wind activity.
Last week, N.J. Senate Republicans introduced a resolution in Trenton urging the state and federal governments to place an immediate moratorium on all sonar testing and wind turbine mapping in response to the surge of these deaths. Senate Resolution 120 was introduced by Sens. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District, and Ed Durr, R-3rd District.
“After months of whales and dolphins washing up on our beaches, enough is enough. We cannot ignore the surge in marine life deaths that has occurred while offshore wind project preparation activities have been conducted along the coast,” said O’Scanlon. “While the governor has stated that ‘there’s no evidence these activities are causing these whale and dolphin deaths,’ he omits that he, and we, simply have no idea what’s causing these tragic deaths. We very well might find evidence that offshore wind activities are contributing to this tragedy. Until we know, we should err on the side of caution. Our resolution calls on Gov. Murphy and the federal government to place a moratorium on these projects until scientific studies can be conducted to determine the impact offshore wind activities are having on marine wildlife.”
“The tragic loss of marine wildlife that has occurred along our coast is unsettling,” said Durr. “A temporary moratorium on offshore wind surveying is a small price to pay to be good stewards of the ocean environment.”
Without a pause in place, the awards announced Wednesday – funded through the state’s Offshore Wind Research & Monitoring Initiative (RMI), a collaborative effort between DEP and NJBPU – will coordinate research on potential impacts of offshore wind energy development.
To date, RMI has provided $8.5 million in funding for offshore wind-related projects.
“These projects will continue to advance the collection of baseline scientific information that will help ensure the responsible development and operation of offshore wind facilities that protect our coastline and its natural resources,” said DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.
The this week’s awards include:
“We are deeply committed to doing all we can to ensure our offshore wind projects are implemented in as ecologically responsible a way as possible,” said NJBPU Joseph Fiordaliso.
As part of the NJBPU’s second wind energy solicitation, Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind LLC and Ocean Wind II LLC committed $10,000 per megawatt of project-nameplate capacity awarded – a total of about $26 million – to fund regional research and ecological monitoring.
RMI has also issued an updated Request for Proposal (RFP) to deploy archival passive acoustic monitoring equipment to better understand the distribution and habitat use of baleen whale species, including the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, in the waters along the Jersey coast. Officials say that project is part of a larger effort that includes collaboration with nearby state, regional and federal entities seeking to protect marine mammals as offshore wind development continues along the eastern seaboard.
Before the funding announcement, the governor was asked about the issue on this week’s “Ask Governor Murphy” program on News 12 New Jersey, hosted by Eric Landskroner.
“You say that there is no evidence that sonar mapping is causing a significant increase in dead whales and dolphins along our coast,” said Landskroner, relaying a viewer’s question. “Why not pause sonar mapping to see if there is a corresponding decrease in marine deaths?”
“The Feds have taken the lead on this – NOAA, BOEM. We take this very seriously. So, I don’t want folks to think that this is something that we’re ignoring because we’re not,” said Murphy. “But there’s no evidence that would suggest that there’s correlation. If we had evidence, we would take some sort of action, I promise you.”
Murphy continued by saying that they are constantly looking at this.
“These patterns began, by the way, seven years ago, long before there was any offshore wind activity. So, I want to remind folks of that,” Murphy said. “And there are legitimate sea life concerns and interests out there. We get it, whether it’s the whales, the dolphins, others. Let’s be honest, there are also other interests that have sort of stapled themselves to this.”
Because of that, the governor said it is important to make sure we are parsing the discussion out reasonably, and not just based on self-interests.
“Let’s make sure we’re sober about what the issues are, compartmentalize them responsibly and take it seriously,” Murphy explained. “And I promise you, we are and will continue to. But, as I sit here tonight, neither the feds nor we have been read into any evidence or data that would suggest there’s a correlation.”