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Some of the nation’s most hard-line climate change deniers are branding themselves guardians of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale as they ramp up efforts to fight offshore wind development along the East Coast.

The Heartland Institute and the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, better known as CFACT, have teamed up with the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, a green-sounding anti-wind power group, to “explore a lawsuit protecting the right whale from Dominion Energy’s efforts to place an offshore wind project directly in their habitat.”

When complete, Dominion’s planned $9.8 billion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project will consist of 176 turbines and produce enough electricity to power more than 600,000 homes. It will be located 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach.

In their September announcement, leaders of the right-wing organizations voiced concern for what the project — one of several large offshore wind farms in various stages of development off the East Coast — would mean for the right whale. The population of whales has been steadily falling since 2010, and fewer than 350 of the animals are estimated still living.

“Unless [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] requires extensive, effective, unprecedented protection measures for the North Atlantic right whale immediately, this species is almost certainly headed toward extinction,” said David Stevenson, president of ACOP. “With only a little more than 300 individual right whales alive today, this endangered species is in dire need of protection, and the Virginia Wind Project lies directly in their annual migration path.”

While the legal threat centers on safeguarding the imperiled marine mammal, the organizations aren’t trying to hide their primary goal: killing an offshore wind project that would compete with a fossil fuel industry that each of them has deep ties to.

“The Virginia Wind Project is a risky, costly, waste of resources and a pitiful way to generate electricity for a state which claims to be business and consumer friendly,” James Taylor, the president of the Heartland Institute, said in a statement.

FILE - The two offshore wind turbines, constructed off the coast of Virginia Beach in 2020, are a pilot project for Dominion Energy's planned $9.8 billion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project.
FILE – The two offshore wind turbines, constructed off the coast of Virginia Beach in 2020, are a pilot project for Dominion Energy’s planned $9.8 billion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project.

Heartland, a libertarian think tank and cheerleader for the fossil fuel industry, peddles climate change disinformation and enjoyed enormous influence during the Trump administration. Similarly, CFACT has a long history of dismissing established climate science and advocating for increased oil and gas development.

The American Coalition for Ocean Protection is little more than an anti-offshore wind outfit. Stevenson, the coalition’s president, is a former executive of chemical giant DuPont and served on the Trump administration’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. On its website, the organization writes that its objective is to “at least create a permanent offshore wind exclusion zone to 33 miles off the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.”

The coalition, a project of libertarian think tank Caesar Rodney Institute, has repeatedly sued to try to block wind projects along the East Coast, including Vineyard Wind off Massachusetts and South Fork Wind Farm off Rhode Island. The Caesar Rodney Institute and the Heartland Institute are both members of the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing, industry-allied think tanks that have waged a war against environmental regulations, renewable energy and climate science.

Stevenson, who has a long history of fighting climate action, is both director of the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Center for Energy Competitiveness and a policy adviser at the Heartland Institute.

Heartland, CFACT and the Caesar Rodney Institute have all received fossil fuel industry funding in the past.

The coalition of groups has not yet filed a lawsuit challenging the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, but has threatened one with shameless hypocrisy, muddled messaging and greenwashing. Their crusade against the project and newfound concern about the plight of right whales comes after years of advocating for oil and gas development in many of the same areas off the East Coast, without so much as a whiff of public concern for how drilling could impact the endangered whales.

“The risks of seismic testing and oil spills have been exaggerated and are manageable compared to the potential large economic benefits,” Stevenson said in 2018 after lawmakers in Delaware passed legislation aimed at blocking offshore drilling in waters off the state’s coast.

Kert Davies, director of Climate Investigations Center, a fossil fuel industry watchdog, called the coalition’s new campaign “opportunism in a mercenary way.”

“The climate deniers are losing so badly these days that they are literally grasping at straws” for ways to fight the inevitable growth of renewable energy, Davies said.

David Stevenson, policy director at the Caesar Rodney Institute, is pictured at a press conference in August 2021 in Boston to announce a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking construction of Vineyard Wind off the coast of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
David Stevenson, policy director at the Caesar Rodney Institute, is pictured at a press conference in August 2021 in Boston to announce a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking construction of Vineyard Wind off the coast of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

The coalition has hired California law firm Gatzke, Dillon and Ballance to help it review an upcoming draft environmental impact statement for the Dominion project and to monitor whether federal regulators are fulfilling requirements under bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — laws that, in the context of fossil fuel development, the organizations have slammed as “burdensome” and have worked to erode.

The legal campaign has featured sweeping declarations that offshore wind guarantees extinction for the right whale. Taylor, of Heartland, told One America News Network that “a project like this just literally drives the nail in the coffin of right whales.” CFACT’s Collister Johnson made similar comments on Bill Martinez’s talk radio show.

Asked what specifically he and others are basing their dire prediction on, Johnson said: “Logic. That’s a good place to start.”

“I’m basing it on the existence of thousands of wind turbines and all the ships that need to service them sitting in the path of the right whale, and in the path of where they forage and where they calve,” Johnson said. “That could be ship strikes, that could be noise, that could be all kinds of things.”

Heartland and ACOP did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment, including questions about whether the fossil fuel industry is helping fund the legal campaign. When E&E News asked Stevenson last year about donations to the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, he said: “So far there is no Koch money, not that we wouldn’t take it,” referring to the billionaire fossil fuel moguls.

Like any offshore activity, wind development has the potential to disrupt and harm right whales and otherwise negatively impact the ocean environment. Gib Brogan, a campaign director at the environmental group Oceana, told HuffPost there is “a long list of unknowns” when it comes to how the turbines could affect ocean currents, nutrients and the food on which right whales prey.

“I’m concerned that the whales are going to bear the brunt of this and that we may not know about those effects for years,” Brogan said. “With this species in the critically endangered state that it is, they don’t have years to learn those effects. It’s high stakes on a lot of fronts, both financially but also for this species. And we are looking to the government to be the stewards here for the whales and make sure their needs are taken care of.”

The irony, of course, is that the fossil fuel-allied groups that are up in arms about offshore wind have opposed or remained silent about efforts to address the primary threats to the whales, including entanglements from fishing gear, vessel strikes and climate change.

The only specific potential impact that the three groups highlighted in their September announcement is that Dominion’s project could put the marine mammals at higher risk of being hit by boats, which is already one of the leading causes of right whale mortality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently proposed expanded vessel speed limits and seasonal speed zones along the East Coast — changes the agency says are “essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction.”

An endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope swims alongside a newborn calf on Dec. 2, 2021, in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia.
An endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope swims alongside a newborn calf on Dec. 2, 2021, in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia.

Despite its purported concern for the whales, CFACT opposes the proposed rule changes. Johnson argued that reducing vessel speeds won’t prevent right whale fatalities.

“Minimizing doesn’t get the job done,” Johnson said. “We have to eliminate it.” Pressed about what he sees as the solution, Johnson said it’s on federal regulators to come up with an answer. “That’s not our problem,” he said.

Johnson scoffed when asked about the impact of climate change on right whales. Research shows ocean warming from human-caused climate change caused the whales to abandon feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine beginning in 2010, ultimately contributing to a decline in the population.

The burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of anthropogenic climate change.

“Climate change has nothing to do with the decline of the right whales,” Johnson declared, falsely.

Dominion, which serves nearly 7 million people in 10 states, did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. But in a statement to the Virginia Star, the company slammed the conservative coalition and said it is taking numerous steps to safeguard right whales and their habitat.

“These groups lack credibility on environmental issues. They are climate change deniers and oppose offshore wind for political purposes,” Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton said in an emailed statement.

“For our Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, we have taken concrete steps to protect the right whales and their migration path,” Slayton added. “No underwater construction will occur during the migration season, and the turbines will be spaced about a mile apart to avoid disturbing their path.”

Johnson dismissed the idea that CFACT and other groups are exploiting the whale for their own political agenda. He said his organization “supports all kinds of environmental things.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that they said we’re terrible people,” Johnson said of Dominion. “Rather than ‘What are you trying to get at?’ it’s ‘Oh they’re bad people, they’re climate deniers. Write them off. They don’t count.’ That’s what their standard operating procedure is.”

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