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Something’s fishy in New Jersey
Republicans fighting offshore wind in New Jersey had a chance to prove their concern for whales was genuine. They failed.
From Marjorie Taylor Greene to Tucker Carlson, Republicans nationwide have suddenly become very concerned about whales.
It’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about. Since 2016, there has been an uptick in whale deaths along the Atlantic Coast. Because the whale bodies are often decayed by the time they reach shore, it’s often hard to determine the exact cause of death.
I’ve struggled, however, to interpret Republicans’ concerns as genuine. After all, they only seem to want to focus on one potential reason for whale mortality: offshore wind energy development. And there’s little to no scientific evidence to support that reason. (They say underwater acoustic surveys may be damaging marine mammal hearing, which may be causing them to swim into boats. But past studies have shown that these surveys do not adversely affect marine mammals.)
I also struggle to believe Republicans’ concern for whales because of their history on environmental issues and endangered species. As we’ve previously reported, one of the most prominent lawsuits seeking to halt offshore wind development was filed by a conservative group that has not only advocated against the Endangered Species Act, but called for sped-up environmental review for fossil fuel projects, which demonstrably kill far more wildlife than renewable projects.
But you can never truly know what’s in someone’s heart, right? So in the interest of optimism, I decided to listen to a hearing on the subject of whale deaths that took place in New Jersey’s State Assembly last week.
Perhaps I’d hear even a minute of Republican interest in some of the more demonstrable factors driving whale mortality, like increases in shipping traffic and climate change. Perhaps I’d hear something that could convince me their concern for whales was driven by more than just the benefit of fossil fuel industry donors.
Surprise! I didn’t. But the two hours weren’t fully wasted. Had I not listened to the hearing, I would not have heard the frankly badass testimony from Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. For nearly an hour, LaTourette sparred with Republican members who tried to spread misinformation about wind energy development, while clearly communicating the urgency of the biggest threat to whales: climate change.
In today’s newsletter, you’ll learn more about what happened at New Jersey’s latest hearing on whale deaths. You’ll also hear LaTourette’s take on the whole affair. (I managed to snag an interview with him early this morning. That’s why this newsletter is a bit late in your inbox today.)
Hot off the presses
The University of Texas is basically a fossil fuel company. A new investigation from CBS News reveals that the country’s richest public university system is raking in billions each year from fossil fuel exploration. According to the report, the UT system owns 3,000 square miles of land in the Permian Basin oil fields, which it regularly leases to oil and gas companies in exchange for royalties. The climate impact of the oil and gas extracted from UT system land is massive: 32.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from 2018 to 2022, CBS reported. That’s about the same as running nine coal plants for a year, or adding 7 million cars to the road. This is the same UT system that calls itself sustainable—and student activists are pushing for change.
Actual fossil fuel companies should be paying trillions in climate reparations. For the first time, scientists have published research attempting to quantify the economic damage caused by the world’s biggest climate polluters. Published in the journal One Earth, the groundbreaking study estimates that the oil, gas, and coal industry has inflicted a “conservative” $23.2 trillion per year in damages to the climate—and that the 21 largest fossil fuel companies owe a collective $209 billion per year in reparations to the victims of climate change. Saudi Aramco should owe the most: $43 billion annually, according to the researchers. That’s a substantial sum of money—but, the researchers note, it’s “low compared to [Saudi Aramco’s] 2022 revenues of $604 billion and profits of $161 billion.”
Speaking of climate reparations: New York Democrats want them (or at least something like them). A few weeks ago, New York passed one of the most historic pieces of climate legislation in the country—the first-ever statewide ban on natural gas in new buildings. Now, Democrats in the state legislature are eyeing another potentially historic bill to make fossil fuel companies pay for the damage their emissions cause the state. The Climate Change Superfund Act would require the world’s biggest polluters to contribute to a state fund that pays for climate damage and resiliency projects, which are already projected to cost the state $800 billion. "Somebody's going to pay," State Senator Liz Krueger, the bill’s sponsor, told Spectrum News last week. "The question is, are the consumers going to pay, or are we going to be able get some of it directly out of these enormous companies making fortunes on their continued efforts to destroy the planet?"
“A point of frustration that I can't really characterize”
There was a point in Thursday’s hearing on whale mortality when Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, appeared to question the sincerity of Republican state lawmakers.
LaTourette was defending the state-funded New Jersey Climate Report, which says that warming waters are causing Atlantic menhaden—a fish which whales feed on—to move closer inland, putting them “into direct conflict with a shipping superhighway that resides just off our coast.” Republican Assemblyman Christian Barranco had cast doubt on the report, characterizing it as merely LaTourette's opinion.
“Our work is not outcome-determinative,” LaTourette said. “It does not depend on the changing tides of public sentiment. It does not depend on the advocacy of environmental activists. Nor does it depend on the sudden interest in newcomers interested in protecting whales.”
In our conversation this morning, I asked LaTourette if he’d meant that to be a read—that is, if he’d meant to imply that Barranco and other Republicans were not genuine in their concern for whales.
“That was entirely the intention,” he said.
“Never once have the Republican lawmakers who were most fierce in their questioning engaged with my department meaningfully about science. Not one single time in the last five years,” he said. “To call this a ‘personal affirmation,’ that is an affront to the many scientists who work their hearts out on this report. It’s offensive.”
If he sounds annoyed here, you should have heard him when Republican Assemblyman Antwan McClellan tried to falsely equate offshore oil seismic testing—which demonstrably hurts whales—with underwater acoustic surveys, which have not been proven to do so.
“There has been some misinformation swirling—disinformation really—that sonar use is somehow confusing marine mammals. That is not the case,” LaTourette said, adding that in some cases, it’s still unclear what is the cause of some whale deaths.
When McClellan pounced on that remaining uncertainty—claiming that offshore development should be paused because “you don’t know what’s affecting them”—LaTourette became exasperated.
“We know what’s affecting them. It’s not unknown,” he said. “The idea that we don’t know? We do know! The changes to the environment in which these mammals exist is what is causing them. There are multiple pieces of that equation.”
McClellan also tried to get LaTourette to admit that building one offshore wind turbine wouldn’t do anything to solve climate change. LaTourette didn’t take the bait.
“Any one individual turbine itself correcting the course of human history? Of course it would have a negligible impact!” he said. “The point is to gradually move from a fossil fuel-based economy—one that has created the very adverse conditions that this panel has organized to approach—to a clean energy economy that does not cause those conditions. But that happens incrementally over time. No one wind turbine, and no one wind farm, will change that outcome.”
I asked LaTourette what he considered the most frustrating part of the hearing. He said there were two things: One, that he had already given this testimony two times before. “In a way, this hearing was surplus,” he said. “I don’t know why the legislators that were asking these questions didn’t just read or watch my video testimony on the same topics.”
More deeply, though, LaTourette said he was perturbed at the disingenuousness and denial.
“The majority of inquiries that I get from our legislature are about why we have to take so much time on permitting, or why we can't get a permit to effectively destroy elements of the environment,” he said. “So when I hear newcomers to the quest to save our environment, and it is very clearly feigned interest, it is a point of frustration that I can't really characterize.”
LaTourette’s recommendation for action: “Engagement beyond your screen. Show up physically in support of the things that you care about. And do not underestimate the significance of that showing up to people in halls of power who make decisions. It is important, far more important than the multiple sign-ons to an online system.”
Catch of the Day: Olive is doing her part to help climate change by picking up the discarded or lost tennis balls at the beach.
Reader Jessie says she never has to buy tennis balls anymore, because Olive is so good at finding them!
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