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The fossil fuel industry’s deceptive campaign to kill offshore wind
A climate denial group is trying to turn public opinion against clean energy by disguising their agenda as pro-environment.
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After years of lagging behind other countries, the United States is on the cusp of developing a real offshore wind industry. This is good news for the climate, as offshore wind is critical to effectively tackling dangerous warming.
What’s good for the climate, however, is usually bad for fossil fuels. So it’s no surprise that a fossil fuel industry-funded group is leading a combined legal and public relations effort to stop offshore wind development in its tracks.
More surprising may be the argument the group is using. In a lawsuit seeking to stop all ongoing U.S. offshore wind development, The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)–which has long advocated against climate and environmental policy–says the renewable energy projects should be stopped because they harm the environment.
TPPF has also launched a public relations effort to promote the lawsuit’s claims, including a dramatic three and a half minute “mini-documentary” on “the environmental impact of offshore wind.”
With this effort, TPPF is attempting to trick environmentally-conscious voters into supporting a pro-fossil fuel agenda by co-opting the language of the progressive climate movement. The effort disguises anti-climate extremism as pro-environmentalism, using a common climate disinformation tactic called “woke-washing,” which experts say is on the rise.
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TPPF’s long anti-environment history
TPPF is part of the State Policy Network (SPN), a group of conservative nonprofits that fight climate policies across the country. Its primary goal in the climate space is shifting public opinion to reject mainstream climate science and be more supportive of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels, in turn, give TPPF a lot of support. Like many SPN affiliates, TPPF’s largest known donor is Charles Koch. The fossil fuel billionaire has given at least $7.6 million to TPPF, including a $1.3 million donation in 2020 and a $1.5 million donation in 2019. TPPF has also received money from ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Luminant, and other smaller fossil fuel companies.
These donors likely only scratch the surface of TPPF’s fossil fuel funding. In 2021, researchers at Brown University published a paper showing that between 2003 and 2018, 75 percent of donations to anti-climate nonprofits like TPPF came from undisclosed grants. “We literally know nothing about where that money came from. It's completely dark,” said Galen Hall, one of the authors of the paper.
Still, the group’s long history of extreme anti-climate rhetoric speaks for itself. TPPF has called the fight against climate change “deluded and illegitimate;” has decried climate science as “alarmism,” and likened decarbonization to a “crusade.” Last year, the group released an op-ed titled “Why Nobody’s Kids Need to be Scared of Climate Change,” which dismissed the dangers of warming while also arguing that nothing can be done to stop it. Many of former President Trump’s environmental appointees came from TPPF; according to E&E News, those officials “overwhelmingly reject climate science, promote more fossil fuel consumption and have run campaigns downplaying the value of renewable energy subsidies.”
TPPF has also long been critical of environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. In 2018, TPPF attacked "far-left environmental groups" over efforts to protect the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard in the Permian basin. "That this humble lizard could jeopardize what may be the greatest energy enrichment in human history is absurdly chilling,” TPPF’s Kathleen Hartnett White wrote.
In 2017, TPPF attorney Robert Henneke wrote an op-ed for The Hill titled, "The Endangered Species Act is an ineffective regulatory burden." In that article, he quoted a biologist who said, "'We don’t need to save endangered species' because 'extinction is part of evolution.'”
Now, however, that same lawyer is using the Endangered Species Act to argue that all U.S. offshore wind development should be killed.
A disingenuous “pro-environment” lawsuit
Filed in December of last year, TPPF’s lawsuit targets the Vineyard Wind project, an 800-megawatt wind farm currently under construction off the coast of southern New England, which could cut 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. It uses allegations against that project to call for pausing all wind farm construction currently happening under the federal “Smart From The Start” program–which is essentially all ongoing wind development in the U.S..
Though it was filed on behalf of commercial fishing groups who argue the project would harm their businesses, TPPF’s lawsuit largely focuses on claims of environmental harm and inadequate environmental review. It asserts violations of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
TPPF’s lawsuit says the Vineyard Wind project would “likely kill, displace, or disturb local species,” would “likely result in massive devastation of the marine environment,” In particular, TPPF’s lawyers seem concerned about one endangered species: the North Atlantic right whale.
On the surface, these are legitimate concerns. According to the World Wildlife Foundation Fund (WWF), right whales are “one of the most endangered of all large whales,” largely due to commercial whaling operations that pushed them to the brink of extinction in the 19th century. Today, the remaining 350 North Atlantic right whales are mostly threatened by rope entanglements and vessel strikes, which could increase during offshore wind construction and operation.
Environmental groups like the NRDC and the Conservation Law Foundation warn that offshore wind energy, if not developed carefully, could harm or kill the few remaining right whales. But unlike TPPF, they believe it’s possible to build offshore wind turbines and protect endangered species at the same time.
In June 2022, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Conservation Law Foundation signed a deal to support an offshore wind project off the coast of New York, so long as the developers engage in protective measures for the whales. The groups did this because climate change threatens whales and other endangered marine species, too.
“Development of renewable energy resources is vitally important to the health of the planet, and it's vitally important to addressing climate change,” said the Conservation Law Center’s Priscilla Brooks, who signed the agreement. “We can do this and we can do it responsibly in the ocean.”
TPPF’s real goal: turning public opinion against clean energy
By disguising their motive as pro-environment, the group is engaging in a form of disinformation called “woke-washing,” said Jennie King, a climate disinformation tracker at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Woke-washing occurs when individuals or organizations use progressive or “woke” language to trick people into supporting fundamentally conservative outcomes. To do this, conservative woke-washers weaponize legitimate progressive concerns to discredit progressive solutions.
“The co-option of progressive language by those who oppose climate action is a big problem for the climate sector,” said King, who is part of a global coalition tracking climate disinformation online. That group recently found that woke-washing is on the rise–particularly from pro-fossil fuel groups trying to discredit clean energy solutions as anti-environment.
“We had case studies where we saw that posts from progressive green groups looked almost identical to dedicated anti-climate groups,” she said. “The only difference would be at the end, where the progressive group’s would say ‘And this is why we need to hold the sector to higher account,’ and the anti-climate group’s would say, ‘And this is why it’s a joke to pretend we can use anything but fossil fuels.’”
Woke-washing may not be a winning legal strategy, at least in TPPF’s case. “Winning any National Environmental Policy Act lawsuit is difficult,” said Michael Burger, the executive director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center. “I don't think that this is a strong lawsuit.”
But winning the lawsuit against offshore wind may not be TPPF’s ultimate goal.
“It's possible that a lawsuit that doesn't have a high likelihood of success on the merits might be brought in order to have indirect effects,'' Burger said. “If a think tank or an organization has as part of its mission to support the continued development of fossil fuels, then simply throwing monkey wrenches into the works of a large scale renewable energy project is a worthwhile project.”
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Catch of the Day: It’s been far too long since Fish made an appearance, hasn’t it? If you have a moment, please do yourself a favor and watch this video of him making his daily morning grumbles, which are surely directed at woke-washers and other climate disinformers.
Fish’s friends also like to make noise at climate villains. Take Cielo, submitted by reader Lauren. It may be a tiny picture, but it’s surely a big howl.
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