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Whale tales

To block wind farms, Big Oil is hiding behind big mammals.

Europe has thousands of wind turbines while the United States struggles to get the sector up and running.Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

There is shameless, and then there is what fossil fuel interests are doing to try to stop Vineyard Wind -- and every other offshore wind project in this country.

People are no longer buying the companies’ lies about the immense harm their products cause the planet, so now Big Oil and climate change deniers are hiding behind whales and fishermen.

They’re disguising themselves as environmentalists, urging regulators and courts to put the brakes on wind farms we desperately need, because they claim to be worried about the harm the structures might do to whales -- even as they oppose environmental regulations and advocate for offshore oil drilling. They are pushing misinformation about whale deaths. They are encouraging and supporting suits by local groups whose causes serve their interests.

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When a group of Nantucket property owners filed a federal lawsuit to halt Vineyard Wind – greenlighted two years ago, and set to begin construction this summer, unless the suit succeeds – David Stevenson helped them announce it at a press conference outside the State House.

Stevenson, a former Trump adviser, is a director at the Caesar Rodney Institute, a libertarian think tank partly funded by fossil fuel companies and connected to a network of think tanks – like the Heartland Institute – that push antiscience, right-wing policies across the country.

The Nantucket residents are being represented pro bono by the firm of Gatzke, Dillon & Ballance, which also represents other real and fake grass-roots groups against wind farms elsewhere on the Atlantic coast, in addition to Heartland.

A group of fishing companies who have brought a different lawsuit to stop Vineyard Wind are represented by attorneys for The Texas Public Policy Foundation, another conservative national group backed by oil and gas companies, which promotes what it calls “the moral case” for the continued use of fossil fuels.

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“It looks like grass-roots groups in local coastal communities are raising issues with offshore wind, but the evidence points to the fact that many of these groups have connections to Big Oil,” said Susannah Hatch, director of clean energy policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

Amy DiSibio, a board member at Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, says that her group no longer has any connection to Stevenson and that her predecessors at the group were just looking for help when they were getting started.

“There is nothing political about this issue, or our organization,” she said. “We will talk to anybody. We are worried about the environment and we’re just asking that everybody stops and takes a look at what the full impact and trade-offs are.”

But Hatch, the federal government, and others say there is no evidence wind turbines are responsible for whale deaths. We do know whales are dying because they’re being struck by shipping vessels, which have proliferated in recent years, and from getting caught in fishing gear. We know, too, that warming oceans means whales are traveling to more perilous waters in search of food.

More and more people believe the disinformation because it thrives unchecked among conservative legislators and commentators, and on social media: A study by Media Matters found that, in the first two months of this year, 84 percent of the 288 Facebook posts that mention wind energy included the unsubstantiated claim that offshore wind farms hurt whale populations.

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Those farms are subject to a mountain of permitting requirements and controls designed to avoid harm to wildlife at every stage, from surveying the site to building turbines to operating them, with on-site biologists standing watch over it all. We don’t have to go back to the drawing board here.

We are so alarmingly behind on clean energy in this country. We have a pathetic total of seven turbines in the water – compared to at least 5,500 in Europe, Hatch said. Vineyard Wind would put 62 turbines in the water 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard by the end of this year, and would power 400,000 homes and businesses. We need many more beyond that.

Some people are genuinely concerned about what those farms will do to fishing, wildlife, and tourism. The oil interests are using them as cover.

They say they care, too, but they’re lying.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.