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How a false claim about wind turbines killing whales is spinning out of control in coastal Australia

Posted on November 15, 2023

Some pictures show a whale lifeless on a beach. In others, the whale is on fire, jumping from the ocean, as wind turbines loom behind it. The pictures are shocking – intentionally so. Recently they’ve appeared on posters and placards and in social media posts in New South Wales’ Hunter and Illawarra regions, as part of a growing campaign against an Albanese government plan to open offshore windfarms zones off the coast.

For weeks, an image of a beached whale with turbines in the background has appeared on a roadside billboard in Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, under the words “Stop Port Stephens Offshore Wind Farms”. After questions from Guardian Australia this week, the advertising company oOh!media added a note to the billboard saying it had been authorised by Troy Radford, the president of the Newcastle and Port Stephens Game Fish Club.

Asked about the ad, Radford said it had been paid for by members of the fishing community and acknowledged “we had someone design it for us”. “It needed to be high impact and visual, and that sums up the information that we’ve got at the time on the potential whale deaths,” he said.

But scientists are clear: the suggestion wind turbines kill whales is not backed by credible evidence.

Quentin Hanich, the editor-in-chief of the academic journal Marine Policy and professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong, spent this week debunking a fake article shared on social media that purported to be from his publication which claimed offshore wind projects in the Illawarra and Hunter would kill 400 whales a year.

Makeshift signs opposing offshore windfarms are seen above Thirroul beach in the Illawarra region of NSW.

The Facebook group took that post down but he worries about the nonexistent study’s broader impact.

“There’s been a whole bunch of continuing dialogue that suggests that windfarms kill whales without any actual evidence to demonstrate that that’s the case,” Hanich said.

This is part of the backdrop to the campaign opposing offshore windfarms in NSW, which has developed momentum in recent weeks, backed by locals, fishers, tourism operators, surfers and MPs from outside the region opposed to renewable energy development.

It has risen despite support from industry, unions, local MPs and councillors, the university and environment groups. Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation have stepped in seeking to counter concerns about whales.

Observers say it can be seen as part of the broader challenge to developments meant to move Australia from relying mostly on coal power to running nearly entirely on renewable energy. It is not what the government expected when the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, last year outlined proposals for six offshore wind zones across the country, arguing Australia had “world-class offshore wind energy potential” and that “just one rotation of one offshore wind turbine provides as much energy as an average rooftop solar installation generates in one day”.

Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, Arthur Rorris.

Arthur Rorris, the secretary of the South Coast Labour Council and a supporter of offshore wind developments, said there were grounds for people who support a rapid transition to clean energy to be concerned. “The Illawarra has been a sounding board for how to divide and turn communities against windfarms in Australia, and it has shown these strategies have worked.

“We will soon see this playing out across the country,” he said.

An opposition fanned by the Coalition

A consultation period for the first zone off Gippsland in Victoria was declared with relatively little controversy. The situation has been different in the Hunter, where a 1,800km2 offshore wind zone that starts about 20km from the coast was declared in July, and the Illawarra, where a consultation period ends next week.

Proposed Illawarra area

Offshore Wind Illawarra visualisations

The opposition has been fanned by the Coalition, including Peter Dutton, who visited the area twice last month. In government, the Coalition introduced legislation for the development of an offshore wind industry. The then energy minister Angus Taylor said international experience had shown that windfarms could exist alongside fishing and shipping industries.

That support has evaporated. Longtime renewable energy opponent and climate denier Barnaby Joyce told a rally in Port Stephens last month that support for renewable energy was a cult and urged the crowd to fight back. Dutton, not a noted supporter of environmental protection in the past, said he was concerned birds, whales and dolphins were at risk and that there had been “no environmental consideration of what these huge wind turbines, 260 to 280 metres out of the water, will mean”. He accused Bowen of holding a public consultation period “essentially under the cover of darkness in a very short period of time”.

Residents attend a rally at Flagstaff Hill in Wollongong on 29 October in protest against a proposed offshore windfarm.

The scale of opposition within the Illawarra became clear two weeks ago when about 1,000 people attended a rally at Flagstaff Hill in Wollongong, and hundreds of surfers held simultaneous “paddle-out” protests in the Hunter and Illawarra.

Opponents said there had not been enough information about what was planned, and they felt the government was rushing the process without having properly examined the marine ecosystem impact.

Illawarra-based Amanda De Lore said she first heard of the proposal when she received a pamphlet in her letterbox. She was confused by what it would mean for the community and the environment. With other concerned locals, she started a Facebook group, Coalition Against Offshore Wind, to share information and raise awareness.

Amanda De Lore and John Hayes from the Coalition Against Offshore Wind Farms at Flagstaff Point Lighthouse in Wollongong.

De Lore said the government was rushing through a three-month consultation period, and offshore wind was “not clean, green energy”. “They are not taking any of our concerns into serious consideration. They just want to steam roll this project over top of us,” she said.

She said the community was alarmed when it was revealed this week that a wind energy company, BlueFloat Energy, had already submitted its plans to build 105 turbines between 14km and 30km off the Illawarra coast.

Bowen was quick to respond, telling local ABC its proposal was news to him and there was no guarantee the BlueFloat plan would align with his final decision on the offshore wind zone. The company quickly withdrew its submission.

Alex O’Brien, a Wollongong-based wealth manager, said he had only became aware of the consultation period, which began in August, a week before the rally. He said he was not opposed to renewable energy, but there were better alternatives elsewhere.

“It feels like this is already done and like we’ve not really been consulted.”

Wollongong Harbour in the Illawara region, where there is growing opposition to offshore windfarms.

In the Hunter, Radford said the game-fishing club he leads was also not against renewables, just these renewables, and their potential impact on commercial fishing, in particular. “What we are against is a kneejerk reaction and rushing into this without the proper investigation,” he said. “Decisions are being made by politicians that have no care for coastal communities and their livelihoods.”

Back in the Illawarra, Grant Drinkwater, who worked with De Lore in starting the Facebook group, gave a list of reasons he opposed offshore wind: he was worried about the impact on whales; concerned the energy would be used for the steel industry and not directly benefit the Illawarra community; thought windfarms were a pointless way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and felt the proposal had been “foisted upon the community”.

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