A fabricated accusation regarding wind turbines causing harm to whales is gaining momentum in coastal regions of Australia.
Some images depict a dead whale stranded on a beach. In others, the whale is leaping out of the water while surrounded by wind turbines. These pictures are meant to be shocking and have been featured on posters, signs, and social media posts in the Hunter and Illawarra areas of New South Wales. They are part of a larger movement opposing the Albanese government’s proposal to establish offshore windfarm zones near the coast.
A picture of a stranded whale with turbines in the background has been displayed on a highway billboard in Port Stephens, located north of Newcastle. The billboard reads “Stop Port Stephens Offshore Wind Farms”. Following inquiries from Guardian Australia, the advertising company oOh!media updated the billboard to include a note that it was authorized by Troy Radford, the president of the Newcastle and Port Stephens Game Fish Club.
When questioned about the advertisement, Radford explained that it was funded by members of the fishing industry. He also admitted that they had hired someone to create it. According to him, the purpose was to make a strong visual impact and accurately represent the information they had regarding the possibility of whale fatalities.
However, according to scientists, there is no credible evidence to support the claim that wind turbines are responsible for killing whales.
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This week, Quentin Hanich, the editor-in-chief of the academic journal Marine Policy and a professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong, worked to disprove a false article circulating on social media. The article falsely claimed to be from his publication and stated that offshore wind projects in the Illawarra and Hunter regions would result in the death of 400 whales each year.
The post was removed by the Facebook group, but he is concerned about the potential consequences of the study that does not actually exist.
Hanich stated that there has been a significant amount of ongoing discussion implying that windfarms are responsible for the death of whales, without any concrete evidence to support this claim.
This is a key aspect of the movement against offshore wind farms in NSW, which has gained traction in recent weeks with support from residents, fishermen, tourism businesses, surfers, and non-local politicians who are against the development of renewable energy.
Despite backing from various factions including industry, unions, government representatives, university officials, and environmental organizations, the issue has continued to gain momentum. Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation have joined forces to address concerns surrounding the protection of whales.
Experts believe that this can be interpreted as a larger obstacle to Australia’s efforts towards transitioning away from coal-based energy and towards renewable sources. This outcome was not predicted by the government, specifically by the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, who had proposed six offshore wind zones throughout the country last year. Bowen had highlighted Australia’s exceptional potential for offshore wind energy and stated that a single rotation of an offshore wind turbine could generate the same amount of energy as a typical rooftop solar system in one day.
Arthur Rorris, the South Coast Labour Council’s secretary and an advocate for offshore wind projects, expressed worry about the views of individuals who back a swift shift to renewable energy. He noted that the Illawarra region has served as a platform for tactics used to create divisions and opposition towards wind farms in Australia, which has proven to be effective.
He stated that we will witness this happening throughout the nation in the near future.
A resistance stirred up by the Alliance.
A period of consultation was announced for the initial area near Gippsland in Victoria with minimal disagreement. However, the Hunter region has faced a contrasting situation, as a 1,800km2 offshore wind zone located 20km from the coast was declared in July. In addition, the Illawarra region is currently in the final stages of its consultation period, ending next week.
The Coalition, led by Peter Dutton, has been fueling opposition to the proposed offshore wind industry. Dutton himself visited the area twice last month. While in power, the Coalition put forth legislation to support the development of this industry. Former energy minister Angus Taylor claimed that other countries have successfully integrated windfarms with existing fishing and shipping industries.
The backing has disappeared. Barnaby Joyce, a long-term opponent of renewable energy and denier of climate change, spoke at a rally in Port Stephens last month and declared that support for renewable energy was like a cult, urging the crowd to resist. Dutton, who has not been known to support environmental protection in the past, expressed concern for the safety of birds, whales, and dolphins, stating that there was no consideration for the environment in regards to the massive wind turbines that will be placed 260 to 280 meters above the water. He accused Bowen of conducting a public consultation period quickly and quietly, without proper transparency.
The scale of opposition within the Illawarra became clear two weeks ago when about 1,000 people attended a rally at Flagstaff Hill in Wollongong, and hundreds of surfers held simultaneous “paddle-out” protests in the Hunter and Illawarra.
Critics argued that there had been inadequate disclosure regarding the proposed plans, and they believed that the government was hastily proceeding without thoroughly assessing the potential impact on the marine ecosystem.
Amanda De Lore, who lives in Illawarra, became aware of the proposal through a pamphlet she received in her mailbox. She was uncertain about its potential impact on the community and the environment. Along with other residents who shared her concerns, she created a Facebook group called Coalition Against Offshore Wind to spread information and increase awareness.
According to De Lore, the government is quickly pushing through a three-month consultation period and labeling offshore wind as “not clean, green energy.” She expressed frustration that our concerns are not being taken seriously and accused the government of trying to force the project on us without proper consideration.
According to her, the community was concerned upon learning that BlueFloat Energy, a wind energy company, had already submitted plans to construct 105 turbines between 14km and 30km off the coast of Illawarra this week.
Bowen was quick to respond, telling local ABC its proposal was news to him and there was no guarantee the BlueFloat plan would align with his final decision on the offshore wind zone. The company quickly withdrew its submission.
Alex O’Brien, a financial advisor from Wollongong, recently learned about the consultation period that started in August, only a week before the rally. While he supports the use of renewable energy, he believes there are more viable options available.
It seems as though this has already been completed and that we were not truly consulted.
According to Radford, the leader of the game-fishing club in Hunter, they are not opposed to renewable energy. However, they have concerns about the specific types of renewable energy being proposed and the potential impact on commercial fishing. He believes that decisions are being made by politicians without proper investigation and without consideration for the livelihoods of coastal communities.
In the Illawarra region, Grant Drinkwater, who collaborated with De Lore to create the Facebook group, provided a series of reasons for his opposition to offshore wind. He expressed concerns about the potential harm to whales, questioned whether the energy would primarily serve the steel industry instead of directly benefiting the Illawarra community, believed wind farms were an ineffective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and felt that the proposal had been imposed on the community without their consent.
The speaker suggested that instead of relying on wind energy, Australia should invest in solar and gas as well as explore the use of small modular nuclear reactors. According to him, these reactors are not yet financially feasible. He also stated that constructing 150 wind turbines near the Illawarra coast will not be enough to save the planet.
Social media and the whale outrage
The opposition to offshore wind energy has expressed itself through social media, with the creation of around 20 Facebook pages and groups since April. Many of these pages have amassed thousands of followers and receive a constant stream of posts, ranging from casual inquiries to angry rants.
Certain individuals post videos from Fox News and pictures of deceased whales on the New Jersey shoreline to stir up emotion. Meanwhile, there are others who share the unfounded statement made by former US president Donald Trump that “windmills” are causing the whales to behave erratically and ultimately resulting in higher mortality rates. However, scientists have refuted this claim and suggested that other factors such as entanglements and collisions with vessels are the true causes of whale deaths.
Some of the information found online can be traced to anti-wind activism in the United States, which is connected to the energy industry and right-wing think tanks with ties to fossil fuel companies. There have been requests from American opponents of wind farms to exchange information and strategies.
An Australian man once asked for advice on the New Jersey-based group Protect Our Coast. One person responded, “You should locate and rally against any endangered species in the vicinity.”
Smaller and more recent social media communities in Australia are advocating for offshore wind. Sean Moran mentioned that he played a role in creating the Facebook group Good for the Gong in response to the spread of false information and as a platform for productive discussions about concerns.
“I work as an engineer and I value discussions that are backed by facts and evidence. However, I often found myself in disagreements with individuals who did not share the same approach. This left me feeling disappointed and then angry.”
Moran expressed cautious optimism regarding offshore wind developments, acknowledging that such a large-scale project will inevitably have some impact. However, he also emphasized the need to counter misinformation in order to seize the potential opportunity.
According to Rorris, a member of the South Coast Labour Council, it is crucial for the Illawarra region to take action in order to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis and to take advantage of new economic prospects, specifically in the production of environmentally-friendly steel. However, he expressed concern that the decision-making process is being influenced by dishonest politicians and individuals who are using tactics similar to those of Donald Trump, such as spreading misinformation. This has resulted in a highly charged and politicized atmosphere.
According to Rorris, some members of the community have valid concerns and are looking for information about the impact of an offshore wind industry. Others are worried about the potential effect on their property values, but instead of acknowledging this, they are using concerns about whales as a cover.
“We comprehend that,” he stated. “We grasp the concept, it can be unsettling. However, climate change is even more unsettling.”