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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Future of offshore wind power on the East Coast may hinge on this New Jersey beach town

    Ocean City, N.J. ― Known as "America's Greatest Family Resort," this beachside city now has a new distinction: It has become the epicenter of opposition to wind energy projects off New Jersey and the East Coast.

    Residents of Ocean City and surrounding Cape May County, helped by an outside group opposed to renewable energy, are mobilizing to stop Ocean Wind 1, a proposal to build up to 98 wind turbines the size of skyscrapers off the New Jersey coast, which could power half a million homes.

    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 Joe 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.

    It is not known how much the county is paying Donohue or the multiple law firms the county has assembled. County Commission Director Leonard Desiderio did not return a request for comment, and Donohue ― who declined an interview request ― said in a text the information is confidential, as did the Marzulla firm.

    "We are positive, however, that all of what the County does will be a drop in the bucket when compared to what Orsted is spending . . . in an attempt to force the County to accept the project," Donohue wrote.

    Not everyone in Cape May County actively opposes the project. When opponents staged their recent protest in Ocean City, local resident Andy Mortensen sat with his wife on the beach and poked fun at the assembly. "They're blocking my view more than the wind turbines will," said Mortensen, who added he hasn't yet taken a position on the wind project.

    Further up the shore, Philip Pepe and Kathleen Hamilton Galante stayed clear of the protests. When the couple moved in 2019 to Brigantine ― to the northeast of Atlantic City ― no one was talking about offshore wind, they said. Now, they added, residents have rapidly adopted extreme views on the projects.

    Pepe, a marine scientist by training, and Galante said they've paid a price for being publicly supportive of offshore wind. Galante said she has been especially targeted, including a time she was screamed at in a parking lot and another where she was told her support for offshore wind made her responsible for the whale deaths. She said she sometimes fears going out in public, and the couple is considering moving.

    "It's really scary," Galante said. "People just can't come up and talk to you like a human being."

    A new 'Save the Whales' movement

    Since last winter, some conservative think tanks, law firms and politicians have seized upon a die-off of whales on the East Coast in their campaigns against wind energy.

    On its website, the Marzulla firm has linked the "scope and intensity" of a proposed Massachusetts wind project to "the recent appearance of dead whales on Atlantic beaches, some of which are endangered species." While the Marzullas have long litigated against endangered species regulations on behalf of property owners, Roger Marzulla, in a statement, said the firm "has never opposed the listing of whales (or any other marine species) under the Endangered Species Act."

    At a county public information session in June, Rep. Van Drew railed against the risks of a foreign developer controlling Ocean Wind 1 and attributed the deaths of the whales to offshore energy surveys. On his website, he says the offshore wind projects are being promoted "under the guise of stopping climate change."

    Climate change is a real threat to the Jersey Shore, given that sea levels have risen at a rate more than double the global average, according to Rutgers University. But in their fight against the New Jersey wind project, Protect Our Coast leaders see the wind turbines as a bigger threat.

    J. Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies and sociology professor at Brown University who has tracked campaigns across the country against offshore wind, said many local groups employ talking points that mirror those of dark money organizations opposed to renewable energy.

    "People really need to know where the information is coming from," Roberts said. "It may be coming out of the mouths of local people, but a lot of it is being generated by the movement to stop the transition away from fossil fuels."

    Roberts' researchers ― building on work from DeSmog, journalists and others - have documented how money has flowed to organizations such as the Caesar Rodney Institute from fossil fuel interests and dark money groups ― nonprofits that are not required to reveal their donors, but can be tracked through tax filings of groups that finance them.

    At the center of the institute's anti-offshore wind campaign is David Stevenson, a former DuPont executive who served on Trump's transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

    While some wind energy proponents have accused Stevenson of being the force behind Protect Our Coast NJ, he rejected that in a statement to The Post, denying that his organization had a hand in establishing or funding Protect Our Coast. Stevenson, however, acknowledged that Caesar Rodney initially served as a free "bank" for the group, receiving funds raised by Protect Our Coast and paying its bills with the money. He has also acknowledged his organization has received oil industry money, but says the amount is minor.

    Stevenson said the institute has also provided Protect Our Coast with information on offshore wind. This included a report he assembled contending that three proposed New Jersey offshore wind projects would have emissions savings near zero ― not the 7.2 million metric tons a year estimated by the state.

    Despite the national forces at play, no one denies that Cape May County includes residents who genuinely fear the consequences of the proposed wind project ― people like Robert Coste, who carefully chooses his words when he speaks about the project.

    A 70-year-old, almost lifelong resident of Ocean City, he said he wants clean energy and cares about the environment. But he's become deeply concerned about the project the more he's read and heard from neighbors and politicians.

    Gazing out to the sea, he leaned against a railing before sweeping his hands wide to indicate the scope of Ocean Wind 1.

    "All this?" he asked, while shaking his head.

    Wind farm construction underway

    Nestled along the Delaware River in Paulsboro, about 65 miles northwest of Ocean City, a contractor for Orsted is welding, sandblasting and painting the steel tubes that construction crews will drive into the seafloor and serve as the base of Ocean Wind 1. The monopiles, as they are called, are nearly as long as a football field and wide enough to fit the fuselage of a 747 airplane. Outside, a 50-foot-tall American flag hangs on the EEW manufacturing facility, visible from the road.

    While the project has faced mounting opposition, it was far different three years ago, when Orsted unveiled plans for the wind farm and the hundreds of jobs it could create. At an Ocean City council meeting that year, an Orsted representative praised the "warm welcome" and the "super progressive attitude" the company had received.

    Now, despite the pending litigation, the company looks forward to breaking ground on onshore construction this fall. "We're confident," said Orsted spokesman Tory Mazzola.

    In early July, the Biden administration signed off on Ocean Wind 1's plan for construction and operations ― a regulatory milestone for the project. In the same month, Gov. Murphy approved a bill allowing Orsted to keep federal tax credits.

    Yet while Orsted may seem to have the upper hand now, the East Coast has a long history of tripping up offshore wind endeavors. In 2017, a developer shelved the Cape Wind project, a plan for 130 turbines off the Massachusetts coast, after facing organized resistance from wealthy coastal homeowners. Those included members of the Kennedy family and William Koch, a billionaire who has contributed large sums to groups opposed to renewables and action on climate change.

    Opponents of Ocean Wind say they are confident they can similarly prevail.

    "We're not going to back down or give up," said Coyne of Protect Our Coast. "And that's the attitude you see growing."

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