Guest Post: South Shore Long Island Whale Die Off

This is a guest post by Mark Stevens, a regular reader at this blog.  Mark is a retired science and technology teacher from Long Island.  I have been meaning to do a post on whales and the offshore wind industry so this was timely.

What’s Going On

The NY Post reported a 7th dead whale washed up on the Jersey shore. A humpback washed up on the Amagansett shore in December. Eight dead whales in two months?  Moreover, David Wojick recently reported that on January 18, 2023 there was a NOAA fisheries media teleconference that noted:

Since January 2016, NOAA Fisheries has been monitoring an Unusual Mortality Event for humpback whales with elevated strandings along the entire East Coast. There are currently 178 humpback whales included in the unusual mortality event.  Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Of the whales examined, about 40% had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. And to date, no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.

The transcript makes for fascinating reading.  The Fisheries spokespersons went to great lengths to make the point that no whale mortalities have been directly linked to offshore wind development.  But there were notable conditions in those statements: “We do not have evidence that would support the connection between the survey work and these recent stranding events or any stranding events in the last several years.”  The other key condition is that the offshore wind development is doing survey work now and not construction.  The open question is whether or not offshore wind development could kill whales.

Bloomberg reports that planned wind projects off the New England coast threaten to harm the region’s dwindling population of endangered right whales, according to a US government marine scientist.  The warning from a top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official, obtained by Bloomberg under a Freedom of Information Act request, underscores the potential legal and environmental perils of offshore wind development along the coast.  Both initial construction of wind projects and decades of expected operation threaten to imperil right whales in southern New England waters, Sean Hayes, chief of the protected species branch at NOAA’s National Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said in a May 13 letter to Interior Department officials.  The department is weighing at least 10 proposals to install wind turbines in shallow Atlantic waters — projects key to fulfilling Biden’s 2030 goal.

The NOAA fisheries media teleconference claimed that survey work had not been linked to  whale strandings.  Surveys entail prolonged use of “machine gun sonar” emits an incredibly loud noise several times a second, often for hours at a time, as the ship slowly maps the sea floor.Mapping often takes many days to complete. A blaster can log hundreds of miles surveying a 10-by-10 mile site.

There are lots of ways this sonar blasting might cause whales to die. Simply fleeing the incredible noise could cause ship strikes or fish gear entanglements, the two leading causes of whale deaths. Or the whales could be deafened, increasing their chances of being struck by a ship later on. Direct bleeding injury, like getting their ears damaged, is another known risk, possibly leading to death from infection. So there can be a big time difference between blasting and death.  Sonar blasting in one place could easily lead to multiple whale deaths hundreds of miles away. If one of these blasters suddenly goes off near a group of whales they might go off in different directions, then slowly die.  It is not guaranteed that the dead whales will wash up on shore.

The NOAA fisheries media teleconference did not address construction impacts.  Sound travels 5 times faster in water and humpback whale sounds can travel thousands of miles according to Scientific American.  Pile driving the hundreds of enormous monopiles that hold up the turbine towers and blades will be far louder than the sonic blasters, especially with eight sites going at once. These construction sites range from Virginia to Massachusetts, with a concentration off New Jersey and Long Island.  This is shown to cause whale mortality.

The impetus for the The NOAA fisheries media teleconference was related to humpback whales strandings. However, some of the dead whales off New Jersey are endangered sperm whales. And there are the severely endangered North Atlantic Right Whales throughout the area where offshore wind developments are planned.

Offshore Wind and the Climate Act

New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) established a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Act requires that by 2030, 70% of electricity will be generated from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and calls for the development of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035.

According to the New York State Offshore Wind Overview five projects have been procured: South Fork (132 MW), Empire Wind  1&2 (816 MW and 1,260 MW), Sunrise Wind (924 MW), and Beacon Wind,230 MW).  Unfortunately, the websites do not provide consistent information but the best guess number of turbines is 316 for a total of 4,362 MW.  At that rate, the 9,000 MW target will require 652 turbines with capacities between 11 and 15 MW.  On January 26, 2023 bids were due for another round of Climate Act offshore wind development.

Is it time to re-think offshore wind?

In order to do the offshore wind development site surveys an incidental harassment authorization is required.  The first  fact is that the huge 2016 jump in annual humpback mortality coincides with the huge jump in NOAA Incidental Harassment Authorizations.  The second fact is that this is just the start of whale harassment when hundreds of enormous monopiles are driven into the seabed for the massive deployment of offshore wind.  When construction gets into full swing there will be multiple pile drivers hammering away which can only result in impacts beyond incidental harassment.

In addition to the hundreds of bird strikes including bald eagles and others, wind turbines are massive killing machines here and around the world.  And the fact that they produce energy about ¼ of their nameplate capacity, cost hundreds of billions of dollars with huge taxpayer subsidies, are intermittent and still need fossil generation backup when the wind stops, require 10s of thousands of acres, have shortened life in the harsh marine environment; require more steel, concrete, copper, and materials than conventional generation of the same output; have monstrous fiberglass blades which are not recyclable, why are we blindly building them?  In addition, most wind projects are built by foreign companies. Do we want billions of ratepayer dollars and taxpayer subsidies going overseas?

According to a study by the Center For Management Analysis of CW Post/LIU, Dr. Matt Cordero determined repowering the Northport Power Station alone with state-of-the-art technology will produce 3500+ MW (more than Empire Wind), cut emissions over 90%, cost less than Empire, use fewer materials, use a fraction of the area that ALREADY EXISTS with a power station and in-place infrastructure, will have zero bird strikes and whale deaths, provide tax benefits for the community, will last decades longer and is on call 24/7 vs. intermittent (20% of the time) wind. 

Furthermore, intermittent wind and solar need massive battery backup and storage with huge costs, land requirements, massive pollution and greenhouse gas emissions for ore extraction and fabrication, and pose a deadly hazard to the region if it catches on an unextinguishable fire that emits deadly gasses.

Emission reduction by NYS will have an undetectable effect on global emissions, especially with China, Russia, India and others building dozens of coal power plants.  They will have reliable, life-saving, cost-effective electricity generation.  States with a large portion of renewables like California, Texas, North Carolina have high rates, power failures, rolling blackouts and a restricted weather operating range, and they IMPORT reliable power from other states, thus relocating emissions to surrounding states. Tesla and others left California for those reasons.  Are they really cutting emissions?

Finally,   the European Union, especially Germany and the UK have shuttered nuclear and fossil generation, relying on unreliable wind and solar sources.  Costs are so high, people must decide whether to buy electric heat or food, and  industries are leaving for other countries with cheaper and more reliable electricity, resulting in unemployment, poverty and economic collapse.

We currently have a reliable, cost-effective generation mix of fossil, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear.  New York State must seriously rethink replacing that generation with intermittent wind and solar.  Our survival and economy depend on it.