Former President Donald Trump has joined the right-wing war against offshore wind with an evidence-free rant about the fledgling industry being responsible for a spate of recent whale deaths along the East Coast.
“Their windmills are causing whales to die in numbers never seen before,” Trump said Sunday during a campaign speech in South Carolina. “The windmills are driving them crazy. They’re driving the whales, I think, a little batty.”
Trump, who as president spearheaded a fossil fuel-centric “energy dominance” agenda and repeatedly exaggerated the wind industry’s impact on birds, told the crowd that he “saw this weekend, three of them came [ashore].”
“You wouldn’t see it once a year,” he claimed, referring to some unspecified time in the past. “Now they’re coming up on a weekly basis.”
Trump appeared to be referencing reports from last month, when three dead humpback whales washed ashore in the Tri-State area over a four-day period. At least one showed signs of being hit by a boat, although federal officials have yet to conclude full necropsies.
Trump in South Carolina claims that Biden is "trying to bludgeon the boating and maritime industry ... with a speed limit of less than 11 miles an hour." He then says the real whale killers are "windmills."
"They're driving the whales a little batty," Trump adds. pic.twitter.com/LDKZ8WMAXu
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 25, 2023
To be clear, wind development — like any other offshore activity — does have the potential to disrupt and harm whales and otherwise negatively impact the ocean environment. It is not without environmental risks, and scientists have urged federal agencies to remain vigilant as the industry expands in U.S. waters.
But federal scientists have repeatedly thrown cold water on sweeping claims coming from fossil fuel-allied climate denial groups, anti-wind organizations and GOP lawmakers — namely, that offshore wind development is wreaking havoc on whales.
“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 states on its website. “There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.”
To make their case, anti-wind advocates often conflate the plight of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale with recent humpback whale strandings, which federal authorities have classified as an “unusual mortality event” that dates back to 2016.
Along with dismissing any link between the whale deaths and offshore wind, officials have stressed that vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and climate change are among the biggest human threats to whales, including humpback and right whales. More than 200 humpback whales have died along the East Coast since 2016. Forty percent of the animals that underwent necropsies showed signs of being struck by a boat or an entanglement.
Ironically, Trump’s comments were part of a broader attack on what he called the Biden administration’s “extreme regulatory attacks,” specifically a new proposal to expand vessel speed limits and seasonal speed zones along the East Coast — changes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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.
“The Biden administration, right now, is trying to bludgeon the boating and maritime industry,” Trump said, adding the proposed rule would limit vessels to the speed of “a slow golf cart.” He claimed that only one whale has been killed by a vessel strike off South Carolina in the last 50 years and, more bizarrely, that a person has “a better chance of being struck by lightning than hitting a whale with your boat” — talking points that sound like something pulled straight from a shipping industry newsletter.
The former president’s rant shines a clear light on the pipeline of misinformation now flowing between conservative, fossil-fuel aligned groups, right-wing media and GOP lawmakers.
As HuffPost reported last year, anti-offshore wind groups, including some of the nation’s most hard-line climate change denial outfits, suddenly branded themselves guardians of the endangered right whale as they ramped up a legal war against newly approved offshore wind projects. Fox News hosts have given anti-wind advocates hours of airtime to peddle unfounded claims about offshore wind devastating whale populations, while often parroting those talking points themselves.
In March, Republicans introduced a resolution that cited recent whale deaths and called for an immediate federal moratorium on offshore wind leasing and construction activity pending the outcome of an investigation to “determine the true impacts” of this development. The resolution came three days after Peter Murphy, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, or CFACT, a right-wing group with a long history of peddling climate change disinformation, penned a post on the organization’s website calling for a moratorium.
More recently, Michael Shellenberger, the two-time unsuccessful California gubernatorial candidate and centrist environmental nonprofit leader, co-produced a documentary, titled “Thrown to the Wind,” which argues in no uncertain terms that when it comes to offshore wind and the recent whale deaths, correlation is as good as causation.
The documentary “proves that the US government officials have been lying” about the cause of the whale mortalities, Shellenberger wrote in an Aug. 26 piece published in the conservative New York Post. (The Post added quotation marks to the headline, which reads: “New documentary ‘proves’ building offshore wind farms does kill whales.”)
Fox News has had Shellenberger on to promote his film at least four times, according to Media Matters to Media Matters, a media watchdog group. In one interview with Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, Shellenberger said he and his team are “working with Congress to get hearings and an investigation on this, because we think there is widespread corruption, including in the U.S. government.”
They’ll almost certainly find allies on Capitol Hill.
“These windmills, according to an earlier report on your network, are killing the whales,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Fox in an interview earlier this month, apparently referencing the unfounded claims in Shellenberger documentary.
Even as whales have become a key tool in the right-wing fight against offshore wind, Trump and other conservatives are actively condemning more stringent vessel speed limits — a concrete action aimed at curbing one of the primary threats to the animals.
Last year, HuffPost asked CFACT’s Collister Johnson about the vessel speed rule. He dismissed the idea that reducing vessel speeds could help safeguard whales. And when pressed about what he sees as the solution, he quickly argued that’s for federal regulators to figure out.
“That’s not our problem,” he said.
Correction: This article previously misidentified CFACT.