© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Federal lawsuit seeks to halt construction of Virginia Beach offshore wind farm

Dominion Energy’s pilot turbines off Virginia Beach. (Photo by Laura Philion)
Dominion Energy’s pilot turbines off Virginia Beach. (Photo by Laura Philion)

A coalition of conservative groups is suing to halt Dominion Energy from constructing its planned wind farm off Virginia Beach, arguing federal officials have failed to adequately consider its potential impacts to endangered whales.

The groups, which include the Heartland Institute and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, filed suit in federal court Monday against agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The plaintiffs say the government “illegally approved Dominion Energy’s offshore wind project by ignoring glaring and obvious procedural errors that subjects the endangered North Atlantic right whale to further grave harm.”

In a statement to WHRO Monday, Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton said the issues raised in the lawsuit “have no merit.”

BOEM “has done an extraordinarily thorough environmental review of the project and carefully considered potential impacts to marine wildlife and the environment,” Slayton wrote. “The overwhelming consensus of federal agencies and scientific organizations is that offshore wind does not adversely impact marine life.”

The utility says it also has several measures in place meant to protect whales, including monitoring for marine mammals when installing piles and halting piling activities during right whales’ migration season.

In May, Dominion plans to start building its wind farm about 27 miles off the Oceanfront. It will consist of 176 turbines that the company says could power more than 600,000 homes.

The Virginia Beach project is set to become the nation’s largest commercial offshore wind farm, making it a target for legal challenges to the growing industry. 

Heartland and CFACT, two of the groups behind the new lawsuit, have a long history of rejecting the scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity. Both groups have opposed efforts to shift to renewable energy.

James Taylor, president of Heartland, told WHRO last year he views renewable energy as the wrong direction for the country economically. 

"We're looking to protect (the) American standard of living. We're looking to protect affordable, reliable energy,” Taylor said. “But when you also see this environmental devastation, it just begs for us to get involved and to stand up for wildlife as well.”

Ruth McKie, a senior lecturer in criminology at De Montfort University in the U.K., studies organized opposition to climate action.

She sees the new “save the whales” campaign as a shift in strategy, from targeting climate science to undermining climate action.

“It’s not necessarily going to stop it. It’s about delaying it as long as possible,” she said. “Every time you can stop an offshore wind development, you’re delaying that energy transition.”

Last fall, the groups notified the government of their intent to sue unless officials took corrective action on Dominion's project. This week’s filing makes good on that promise.

But the plaintiffs’ arguments are broader than the Commonwealth. The groups make the case that federal officials need to assess the industry’s impacts as a whole, rather than each project in the permitting process.

“BOEM has committed a crucial procedural error in failing to analyze the combined impact of all of the approved and planned offshore wind projects on the North Atlantic right whale,” Collister Johnson, senior advisor with CFACT, said in a statement Monday. “We believe the courts will put a stop to further offshore wind projects until this mistake has been corrected.”

Scientists have said there is nothing to back up claims circulating about the industry’s impact on whales.

“There’s no scientific evidence that even a single whale death has been linked to offshore wind energy development,” Andrew Read, a marine biology professor at Duke University who also serves on the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, previously told WHRO.

Several whale species – including humpbacks and the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – have been dying at an unusually high rate since 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Read said the leading causes are whales being struck by boats or tangled in fishing nets. 

Warming waters from climate change may also be bringing some species closer to shore, where they’re more likely to encounter these human threats, he added.

Two dead humpbacks washed ashore in Virginia Beach this month, as well as a minke and two sperm whales on the Outer Banks. 

Officials have not yet determined the whales’ cause of death. The Virginia Beach humpbacks both had abnormal skin lesions and healed scars indicating past entanglements, according to the Virginia Aquarium.  

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

The world changes fast.

Keep up with daily local news from WHRO. Get local news every weekday in your inbox.

Sign-up here.