The school-bus-size humpback whale that washed ashore on a narrow beach in Brigantine, N.J., this month weighed in at 12 tons and took a heavy emotional toll on coastal towns helplessly witnessing a spate of such deaths.
The humpback was one of nine large whales to get stranded over six weeks on or near beaches in the Northeast, not far from where developers of hundreds of offshore wind turbines are engaged in a flurry of preconstruction activity. The deaths have prompted pushback against the projects even though government scientists say they are unrelated.
It's the latest in a string of threats to a fledgling offshore wind industry that climate advocates say is central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Surging costs from inflation and labor shortages have developers saying their projects may not be profitable. A raft of lawsuits and pending federal restrictions to protect sensitive wildlife could further add to costs. The uncertainty has clouded bright expectations for massive growth in U.S. offshore wind, which the Biden administration and several state governments have bet big on in their climate plans.
"We're trying to stand up an entire industry in the United States, and we're having natural growing pains," said Cindy Muller, a Houston-based lawyer who runs the Houston office and co-chairs the offshore wind initiative at the law firm Jones Walker.
State leaders and the Biden administration have homed in on the industry because the power of offshore winds can produce a rare round-the-clock source of greenhouse-gas-free electricity - and one difficult for future administrations to undo once turbines are in the ground. The administration set a goal for 30 gigawatts of new power from offshore wind by 2030. That is about 3 percent of what the country needs to get to 80 percent clean electricity by that time, according to estimates from a team led by University of California at Berkeley researchers.
The industry paid more than $5 billion to the federal government for the right to build off the coast as the Biden administration made a large number of leases available last year. Some of the world's largest energy companies, including BP, Shell, Equinor and Duke Energy, now plan to spend billions more constructing thousands of skyscraper-size turbines off America's shores that will produce enough juice to power roughly 7 million homes, according to the American Clean Power Association, a renewable-energy trade group.
The nation's first large-scale project began construction off the coast of Massachusetts a little more than a year ago, and surveying vessels are now charting the East Coast for the next wave of construction. That work is happening in the same area where a die-off of humpback whales began seven years ago and where scientists and federal officials are now working to prevent the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world's most endangered marine mammals, from going extinct.
"We have an unprecedented amount of whales dying here at the same time there is this industrial activity taking place on a scale that has never before happened in these waters," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a local nonprofit. "Why is this not being investigated? Why are these companies getting a pass?"
Achieving the Biden administration's target would require the installation of thousands of the machines, which will tower as high as three Statues of Liberty stacked on top of one another when their blades reach for the sky. The blades alone can be the length of a football field.
But it has been slow going. There are only seven working offshore wind turbines in the entire United States at the moment. In Europe, there are more than 5,000. China also has thousands.
"This industry has had a long, frustrating, sometimes slow start," said Klaus Skoust Moeller, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, which is finally laying cable for a massive wind project 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard that is years behind schedule amid regulatory delays and litigation from opponents. "It makes no sense. We have cities ready to invest. It is there for the grabbing."
That leaves the American wind industry at an inflection point, with 17 projects on the East Coast in active development, almost all of them confronting considerable head winds. The New Jersey utility Public Service Enterprise Group said last week that it was selling out of its 25 percent stake in the Ocean Wind 1 project. And last fall, three other developers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic moved to renegotiate their contracts, saying they can no longer afford to deliver power for the prices promised because of soaring costs.
Shareholders are pressuring companies not to invest in more projects beyond the wave that has already begun, said Paul Zimbardo, an analyst at Bank of America. The delays make it unlikely that the Biden administration will meet its 2030 goal, lawyers and analysts said.
"As we build out this industry, there are going to be bumps in the road," Elizabeth Klein, the newly installed director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said at a gathering of U.S. mayors in Washington on Thursday. "We will continue to collaborate with communities up and down the coast and all across the country to make this a reality."
The companies have influential allies in their corner beyond the White House. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and other major environmental groups are working to push the projects forward.
"The biggest threat to the ocean ecosystem is climate change," said Shay O'Reilly, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club in New York City, which is backing a 130-turbine project that would sprawl across 80,000 ocean acres south of Long Island.
Proponents of harnessing ocean wind find themselves battling on many fronts.
Fishing industry groups fear regulators are overlooking potential harm to marine life and access to fisheries in the rush to get turbines churning. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an oil company-funded advocacy group working to stop renewable energy expansions, is providing the financial backing and legal expertise for litigation filed by New England fishing businesses to stop the Vineyard Wind project. The foundation is taking up the cause of the whales in court.
Even conservative pundit Tucker Carlson of Fox News, a longtime antagonist of environmentalists, devoted a segment this month to the plight of the Atlantic Coast whales.
"Where are all the liberals that used to care about whales and the environment and the ocean and the land?" Carlson said on his program. "They are all gone or taking money from green energy."
Amid concerns the whale deaths are linked to wind energy development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summoned reporters to a news conference to highlight evidence that says different.
A necropsy of the humpback that washed ashore in Brigantine this month revealed bruising from a blunt-force trauma consistent with a strike from a boat, said Sheila Dean, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a New Jersey nonprofit that led the response to the stranding. But she cautioned it may take a while to study samples from the stranded whales and determine the cause of death.
Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said whales face "a suite of risks" as turbines are built, such as increased vessel traffic and potential changes to the ecology. But that ecological change, he said, "needs significant further study to truly understand its significance."
Right whales have been the biggest concern, and the Biden administration is working on guidance, expected this year, on protecting their migration paths.
Meanwhile, wind developers, environmentalists and fishing businesses are fighting over new federal speed limits for construction vessels, aimed at preventing whale strikes and also expected this year. The offshore wind industry is warning against limits that are too rigid. They say it would force developers to put ships that are effectively floating hotels at project sites out at sea, an extreme expense but the best potential alternative to prohibitive transit times getting workers from and back to shore.
Lobbyists and analysts said that even if the companies lose some of these fights, the offshore wind projects are likely to survive. Timothy Fox, vice president of research at ClearView Energy Partners, called them "a high but surmountable hurdle."
States are deeply invested, a crucial source of support. Several East Coast states, California and Louisiana have committed to securing 74 gigawatts of offshore wind power - enough to power tens of millions of homes, according to a tally from the American Clean Power Association.
At the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Washington last week, discussion of the immense investment potential for cities overshadowed concerns about all the setbacks the projects are confronting. The chair of the group's energy committee, Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Mass., where Vineyard Wind is based, marveled at how much investment went into that company's single project.
"It is the equivalent of three NFL stadiums," he said. "This is a big, big industry. There is a lot in motion right now. It will be relevant to a whole lot of cities."