Posted on August 9, 2023
The future of East Coast wind energy could hang in the balance. If opponents succeed, they hope to create a template for derailing some 31 offshore wind projects in various stages of development and construction off the East Coast, a key part of President Biden’s plan to reduce greenhouse emissions that are driving global climate change.
“We have a lot of leverage,” said Frank Coyne, treasurer of Protect Our Coast NJ, which gathered over 500,000 signatures on a petition opposing proposed wind farms. “The objective is to hold them up and make the cost so overwhelming that they’ll go home.”
At issue in New Jersey are plans by Orsted, a Danish multinational corporation, to build Ocean Wind 1 — the largest offshore wind project to clear a key federal regulatory hurdle — about 15 miles off the state’s Southern coast. The company has plans for a second project, already approved by state regulators.
New Jersey Democrats support both projects and see them as vital for meeting a state goal of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
“At the end of the day, it’s imperative for our state’s future,” Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s the right step to take.”
While a federal agency approved Ocean Wind 1 in July, the company still needs other permits to start construction. Meanwhile, opponents have hired law firms now pursuing legal action, including a lawsuit filed in late July by Protect Our Coast NJ against Orsted and the state to block a tax break for the wind farm.
Founded after Orsted received its initial state approval in 2019, Protect Our Coast describes itself as a grass-roots group, made up of “residents, homeowners, business owners, fishermen and visitors” united to “Protect Our Coast from industrialization.” But it isn’t completely a homegrown organization. Early on, the group received support from the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute, a think tank that opposes many offshore wind projects and has ties to fossil fuel interests.
As part of their campaigns, both the institute and Protect Our Coast NJ have focused on whale mortality, arguing that offshore wind harms the environment more than helps it.
But in linking East Coast whale deaths to wind project surveys, these groups contradict what leading marine mammal scientists have concluded. “At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.
Opponents have also spread images that overstate how visible the proposed turbines would be from the shore and shared false allegations that the federal government authorized Orsted to kill hundreds of marine animals.
When asked about tactics, Barbara McCall, a board member for Protect Our Coast, said the group stands behind the information on its website.
While pro-wind environmental groups and Protect Our Coast NJ find little common ground, they agree on one thing — the ongoing fight will be pivotal for U.S. offshore wind projects, including more planned in New Jersey.
On Friday, developers proposed an additional four wind farms off the state’s coast. In an apparent nod to coastal opponents, two of them would be much further offshore than the pivotal Ocean Wind 1 project.
“New Jersey is an example for the entire country,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, the director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter and a supporter of offshore wind energy. “If we are not able to build this, it will make it harder for other wind projects to succeed.”
Coyne put it more succinctly. “Whatever happens here is like a domino,” he said. “Right up the coastline.”
A county dependent on tourism
In the summertime, tourists flock to the sandy beaches of Ocean City, transforming Cape May County. While the county is home to a mere 95,000 people, it draws more than 10 million visitors every year, and many of them crowd into Ocean City, with its two-and-a-half mile boardwalk, lined with amusement rides, pizza parlors and salt water taffy vendors.
While New Jersey is a blue state, Cape May County is decidedly red, with 43% of voters registering Republican, 25% Democrat and the rest listed as “other.” The county voted for Donald Trump — an opponent of wind power — by wide margins in both of his presidential runs.
The county’s political apparatus, including state representatives, are largely united against Ocean Wind 1. On the federal level, Rep. Jeff Van Drew — a former Democrat who switched parties for the 2020 election — is working to stop the project.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of offshore wind protesters crowded onto the beach in Ocean City. Hundreds joined hands and formed a chain at the edge of the water that stretched from the fishing pier down the sand. Defiant, they cheered “stop the windmills” before breaking apart.
Former city councilman Michael DeVlieger attended with his daughter, son and two nephews. “It’s hard not to be emotional about it when it affects every aspect of our lives,” he said of the project.
Protesters cite myriad reasons for their opposition. They fear the project will irreparably harm the local economy, marine life and their seaside views. They say that Gov. Murphy and the Biden administration have steamrolled their community. Contradicting analyses of state regulators, they claim the project will cause electricity bills to significantly increase, even though the state estimates that, when operational, the wind farm will cause bills to rise by only about $1.46 a month for residential customers.
While Protect Our Coast NJ is one of the largest groups mobilizing against the wind project — its Facebook group includes more than 20,000 members — others are also preparing for litigation battles.
Cape May County has assembled a formidable legal team, led by retired judge and county Republican chairman Michael Donohue, who the county has brought on as its special counsel.
The team includes Marzulla Law, headed by a powerhouse couple, one of whom succeeded James Watt as president of the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, after Watt became an embattled Interior Secretary in the Reagan administration. More recently, the Marzullas have been representing groups fighting East Coast wind projects, including Save Long Beach Island and the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, which is battling a wind farm under construction 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard.