A series of humpback whale strandings on Mid-Atlantic beaches during December into January gave offshore wind opponents an opening to promote one of their key charges: that sea floor surveys for planning the turbine arrays already threaten endangered marine mammals.

Clean-ocean advocates, commercial fishermen and activists from New Jersey beachside resort towns issued a demand for a “thorough, transparent investigation of these whale deaths performed by federal agencies with independent, third-party scientist oversight” and “a hard stop to all current in-water activity by the offshore wind industry, until the investigation is complete.”

Environmental groups that support wind power swung into action. Allison McLeod of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters said observers on offshore wind survey vessels had reported no whale encounters and “it is therefore irresponsible to assign blame to offshore wind energy development before a routine full investigation is completed.” 

Wind power critics led by the New Jersey group Clean Ocean Action contend the animals could have been harmed by vessels that tow survey equipment and sample the sea floor for developers planning to install wind turbines and power cables off New Jersey.

Federal officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management jumped into the public relations fray a few days later with a telephone press conference for reporters. 

“I want to be unambiguous: There is no information supporting that any of the equipment used in support of offshore wind development could directly lead to the death of a whale,” said Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for permits and conservation with NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

BOEM officials — who oversee offshore oil and gas development as well in the Gulf of Mexico — said the survey tools used for wind projects off the East Coast are akin to sonar rather than the loud acoustic signals used for oil exploration.

Wind developers have permits issued by NOAA under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allow offshore work that may cause “incidental” harassment of whales, but not physical harm. 

Critics continue to challenge that explanation, contending that even sub-lethal effects of sound can affect whales, potentially disorienting them and putting them in danger. Two whales beached in New Jersey were found to have injuries from vessel strikes. NOAA officials say an increasing population of whales in the New York Bight close to vessel traffic may be one factor.

While the whales debate loomed large, finance and public policy questions played into New Jersey’s impending third offshore wind solicitation, which will move the state closer toward Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of 11,000 megawatts of potential.

Amid industrywide concerns over escalating costs and lowering expectations, the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) announced it will sell its 25% equity stake in the Ocean Wind 1 offshore wind energy project to Ørsted.

“As Ocean Wind 1 has evaluated the optimal way to move forward, it has become clear that it is best for the project for PSEG to step aside and allow for a better-positioned tax investor to join the project so that it can proceed with an optimized tax structure,” said Lathrop Craig, PSEG’s senior vice president and chief commercial officer. PSEG will concentrate on transmission to support offshore wind, said Craig.

“PSEG has been a valuable partner as we have advanced Ocean Wind 1 to this point and as we’ve successfully advanced our offshore wind vision in the United States. With a well-established presence in the U.S., we’re confident in our ability to drive the project forward with commercial operations beginning as planned” in 2025, said David Hardy, group executive vice president and CEO for the Americas at Ørsted.

Ørsted’s assurances come after developers of the Commonwealth and Mayflower wind projects unsuccessfully asked Massachusetts utility regulators if they can re-work power purchase agreements in light of inflation and other economic disruptions.

That’s raised questions of whether developers may do the same in New Jersey. In a Jan. 11 letter to the state Board of Public Utilities, Brian Lipman, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Rate Counsel, questioned the BPU’s willingness to increase offshore renewable energy credit price increases to developers.

Lipman said there is concern “that this proposal will create a windfall reward for those OSW (offshore wind) developers that did nothing more than follow good business practices in securing their materials and equipment under options and other advanced purchases. These developers will not need such an adjustment and could use this margin to offer an even more competitive bid.

“Instead of generating a diversity of bids that include lower-cost bids by more prudent developers, [the] board staff’s proposal will lead to a ‘hold-harmless’ provision that places all bidders on a common footing by making them whole for changes in input costs and supply chain constraints.”

Lipman said the measure may provide “an inflationary windfall to developers at New Jersey ratepayers’ expense.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.