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Fossil fuel industry dupes media, quietly funds non-profits to block renewable energy
Shortly after he took office, President Biden announced a goal of building 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030, enough clean energy to power 10 million homes. For the administration, the offshore wind target was a part of a larger strategy of reducing carbon pollution and putting the country on track for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But, like many clean energy plans, this one was met with immediate resistance.
In August 2021, CBS News reported that Nantucket Residents Against Turbines — or ACK Rats — launched a lawsuit against the administration's offshore wind plans. The Massachusetts-based resident group argued that offshore wind development “poses a threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.”
A few months later, a resident group in New Jersey launched another lawsuit against the Biden administration. Bob Stern, president of Save Long Beach Island, told Reuters that he and his fellow residents worried that the wind turbines would destroy their local tourism economy.
Within a year of announcing the goal, the Biden administration faced lawsuits from resident groups in every coastal state from Maine to North Carolina. Some groups sued over endangered whales. Others argued that the turbines would hurt their property values or the local fishing industry.
If you only read the news stories about these lawsuits, you might think this was yet another example of wealthy residents blocking clean energy development. Or you might see a familiar story of environmentalists getting in the way of environmental progress. But you’d be missing the most important part of the story. Nearly every story neglects to mention these groups are being funded by a far-right think tank that receives funding from fossil fuel companies and billionaires.
Who’s behind the offshore wind lawsuits?
According to their website, Protect Our Coast NJ — one of the groups opposing Biden’s offshore wind plans — is a group of “residents, homeowners, business owners, fishermen and visitors of the New Jersey coastal communities.” Media reports accept this description at face value.
In May 2022, Asbury Park Press — the third largest newspaper in New Jersey — ran a story about Protect Our Coast NJ with the headline, “Could offshore wind turbines blow away Long Beach Island tourism?” The story positions Protect Our Coast NJ as a group of residents and features many of the talking points and studies on the nonprofit’s website:
Ric Bertsch, an Ocean City resident and member of the group Protect Our Coast NJ, which opposes the wind projects as they are currently designed, said he worries about the impacts to communities like his own.
He said the county will suffer the consequences of New Jersey's new experiment with offshore wind turbines, which will harm the tourist experience and block large swaths of ocean from commercial fishing
"The only brand (in Ocean City) that we have to offer the world is our old-fashioned values, our quiet, our peaceful place to be," said Suzanne Hornick, also of Ocean City and leading member of Protect Our Coast NJ. "This (wind turbine project) really screws with our brand."
As of this writing, the “Donate” button on the Protect Our Coast NJ website redirects to a PayPal link that reads “Donate to Caesar Rodney Institute.”
Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI) is one of more than 50 think tanks in the State Policy Network (SPN). As The Intercept’s Lee Fang reported, CRI receives funding from fossil fuel trade groups like the American Fuel & Petrochemical Association. The think tank also receives funding from Donors Trust, the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement.”
In September 2021, CRI’s David Stevenson — a former member of President Trump’s EPA transition team — held a press conference in front of the Massachusetts State House where he announced a legal fund for groups fighting Biden’s offshore wind plans. By that point, Stevenson had raised $75,000 from his network of donors, and said he hoped to raise $500,000 for the effort.
When asked by E&E’s Ben Storrow who was funding the campaign, Stevenson said, “So far there is no Koch money, not that we wouldn’t take it.”
CRI’s efforts quickly attracted the attention of much larger conservative groups like the Heartland Institute and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). In September 2022, one year after the press conference, both organizations announced a partnership with CRI to sue an offshore wind project in Virginia.
According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, the Heartland Institute and CFACT have both received about $500,000 in funding from ExxonMobil. The Heartland Institute has been called “a leading force in climate change denial.” Media Matters for America named CFACT Founder Marc Morano its climate denier of the year in 2012. Marano, who began his career working for Rush Limbaugh, has said climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged.”
In a press release, CFACT President Craig Rucker said, “We are not only very concerned about the future of the right whale, which extensively uses the ocean waters affected by the wind-power project, but also concerned as to how [the federal government] will address the fact that this project, despite its alleged benefits regarding carbon dioxide and climate change, will actually cause the release of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it will consume.” This, like most of CFACT’s statements about climate change, is false.
Reporters consistently tell a misleading story
None of these connections to the country’s infamous climate denial network are mentioned in the Ashbury Park Press news story about Protect Our Coast NJ. And the local New Jersey newspaper isn’t alone. According to a Popular Information analysis, 11 media outlets have covered Protect Our Coast NJ. None of them mention CRI, its donors, or the legal fund.
Popular Information found that reporters routinely failed to mention connections to CRI when writing about Save Our Beach View, Save Long Beach Island, and Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, three of the other resident groups in the coalition. Instead, these articles spread many of the resident groups’ misleading claims about clean energy.
In January, Reuters wrote a story about Save Long Beach Island’s lawsuit against the federal government. The article did not mention the group's ties to CRI.
Bob Stern, president of Save Long Beach Island, told Reuters that they are concerned by the aesthetic impacts of the turbines, and potential lost tourism due to their interference with Long Beach Island's current unobstructed seascape. The group says tourism is the community's "economic lifeblood."
In 2019, researchers at the University of Rhode Island published a paper analyzing the impacts of offshore wind farms on tourism. They used empirical data based on the United States’ only offshore wind farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island. The researchers concluded that the wind farm resulted in more tourism, not less. This study isn’t mentioned in the Reuters story.
Another frequent concern mentioned by resident groups is the risk to endangered species. CBS covered this last year when they wrote:
The "ACK Residents Against Turbines" who filed the lawsuit said the proposed Vineyard Wind project poses a threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
Jessica Redfern, a senior scientist at Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, told Cape Cod Times that the greatest threat to the North Atlantic Right Whale’s continued existence “comes from collision with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear, particularly lobster pot buoy lines.” She added, “Another big factor is climate change and one of the ways we can minimize that is adopting clean energy (policies) and offshore wind is a great source of that.” She said she had never heard of Save Long Beach Island.
In addition to misleading readers, this poor coverage creates more opposition to offshore wind projects and funnels local residents to the nonprofits’ websites and Facebook pages, which routinely share misinformation about clean energy.
Decarbonizing America’s electric grid and economy will require support from people in every community in the country. But, letting fossil fuel companies and climate deniers control the narrative is a sure way to turn communities of supporters into groups of passionate opponents.
Rebecca Crosby contributed additional research for this report.