On Wednesday, a group of citizens claiming they’re worried about the safety of an endangered whale filed a lawsuit against the Vineyard Wind project, an offshore wind farm that’s slated to become the first large-scale offshore project in the U.S. The suit highlights some of the challenges that could continue to face the project—and the disparate groups joining together to fight against renewable energy.
The suit, filed by a group called Nantucket Residents Against Turbines (who have the objectively hilarious acronym ACK RATS) in federal court against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, charges that the agencies did not do a sufficient job in analyzing how the project would impact wildlife, specifically the endangered North Atlantic right whale. In a statement posted to Facebook, ACK RATS called themselves a group of “environmentally concerned citizens” and said that saving the whale from “industrial offshore development” is their primary driver in filing the suit. (The government has been researching tactics to protect right whales during offshore wind installation since at least 2012.)
“There are perceived threats to North Atlantic right whales, and there are actual threats to North Atlantic right whales,” said Kelly Kryc, a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress and the former ocean policy program director at the New England Aquarium. “These real threats are entanglements from fishing gear, climate change, and vessel strikes from recreational and commercial boats. Those are the things that are actually killing whales.”
Kryc said that companies like Vineyard Wind are required to enter into mitigation agreements during construction that deescalate threats to right whales, including requirements of when to drive the piles to make sure whales aren’t in the area and slow down boat speeds to decrease the chance of accidents. Those concrete steps have been examined in peer-reviewed studies as ways to keep the whales safe. And frankly, offshore wind is part of a long-term survival plan for the species.
“Climate change is really affecting the whale’s ability to find food,” Kryc said, noting that whales are following their food into different areas where people aren’t prepared for their presence, which increases the chance of accidents and death. “The best way to combat climate change is to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy matrix, and to do that, we need to scale up renewable energy.”
The ACK RATS suit is getting support from David Stevenson, a former member of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team. Stevenson was at the press conference announcing the legal challenge held in Boston Wednesday, where he commended the ACK RATS founders for “trying to save the whales, save Nantucket.” Stevenson is currently a director at the libertarian think tank the Caesar Rodney Institute, which is starting a new coalition, called the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, specifically to fight offshore wind projects.
The Caesar Rodney Institute’s website states its supporters “span the political spectrum,” but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, a network of conservative think tanks spread across the U.S. that works closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council to implement right-wing policies at the state level. State Policy Network members in 2015, for instance, worked to block the implementation of the Clean Power Plan in various states. The former president of the Heritage Foundation sits on the institute’s board as well.
The fight against Vineyard Wind is what is likely to be the first of many fights the new coalition will enter into. President Joe Biden has set a goal of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030 as part of the administration’s bid to decarbonize the electric system by 2035. Ocean heat waves have increased in frequency, and the science is quite clear that reducing carbon pollution is a necessary step to avoiding more damage to ecosystems the North Atlantic right whale and other species depend on.
“The current administration’s misguided belief that ocean wind turbines will have any significant effect on climate change leads to unwise policies and procedures,” the American Coalition for Ocean Protection’s site reads, noting that donations to the organization will go to efforts to create a “create a permanent offshore wind exclusion zone.” Shots of right whales and other wildlife decorate the top banner.
“In reading [the lawsuit], my question is: If the primary concern is North Atlantic right whales, are these groups advocating for the other things that need to happen to protect them, like banning fishing practices, and arguing for mandatory vessel speeds—and, in this case, making the change to a zero-emissions future?” Kryc said. “Those [actions] are immediate and can be done. If the North Atlantic right whale is the primary concern, the steps that need to be taken are known, scientifically validated, and ready to implement with enough political will.”
This isn’t the first lawsuit filed against Vineyard Wind: last month, a solar company owned by Thomas Melone, a wealthy (and litigious) New York-based developer with a house on Martha’s Vineyard, fired the first legal shot at the project, which was just approved in May. Melone’s company’s suit lists environmental concerns about the project—including its impact on whales—that are intertwined with mentions of his property on Nantucket Sound and the “aesthetic benefits” he derives from the area. Similarly, ACK RATS’ suit notes that the group’s members “will be able to view the proposed wind farm from public and private vantage points on Nantucket” and charges that the federal government made an “inadequate assessment of the Project’s impacts on views from Nantucket Island.”
The two suits against Vineyard Wind have echoes of the strange bedfellows that doomed the Cape Wind project, the last big offshore wind project proposed off the coast of Nantucket, in 2017. The arguments follow similar contours with environmental complaints at the forefront while the main issue was it would affect oceanfront property owners’ views. During the years in which the project was on the table, it was repeatedly challenged in court by an array of people and groups across the political spectrum, including one of the Koch brothers and the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, both of whom had homes in Nantucket. (Melone also filed a lawsuit against the Cape Wind project.)
“So far there is no Koch money, not that we wouldn’t take it,” Stevenson told E&E News of the effort to halt Vineyard Wind.
Given how similar this fight looks to the one Koch helped win against Cape Wind, it wouldn’t be surprising if we start to see more right-wing, oil-friendly money roll in. And it seems like using the guise of protecting the ocean will become even more popular as the fight heats up.
Correction, 8/27/21, 12:03 P.M. ET: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Thomas Melone’s last name.