Virginia offshore wind project hits whale trouble

By Niina H. Farah | 05/02/2024 06:12 AM EDT

The court ordered the Biden administration to provide proof of whale protections days before Dominion Energy plans to start building the project.

Wind turbines.

Wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Steve Helber/AP

A federal judge has ordered the Biden administration to clarify its plans for protecting endangered whales during construction of one of the nation’s largest offshore wind farms.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has until Friday to file a report on whether NOAA Fisheries approved mitigation plans to protect the North Atlantic right whale. The order from Judge Loren AliKhan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia comes as Dominion Energy prepares to lay the foundation for wind turbines off Virginia’s coast.

A coalition led by the free-market group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow is calling for a preliminary injunction to halt work on Dominion’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. AliKhan issued her order on the heels of a status conference on the case; she is expected to rule on whether to pause construction after the coalition files a brief due by May 9.


Jeremy Slayton, a spokesperson for Dominion, said in an email that the issues raised by the coalition “have no merit.”

“The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has done an extraordinarily thorough environmental review of the project and carefully considered potential impacts to marine wildlife and the environment,” he said in an email.

The case is the latest in an anti-wind push that spans various groups — from fishermen to coastal communities — and is backed by national far-right and libertarian groups. The Heartland Institute, an advocacy group that receives funding from fossil fuel companies, and the conservative nonprofit National Legal and Policy Center are part of the coalition that brought the case against the Dominion wind project.

In its request for a preliminary injunction, the coalition claims that BOEM’s biological opinion for the project was “defective” as well as “internally inconsistent.”

“Because of these serious deficiencies, the Biological Opinion underreports the specific and cumulative impacts of the Project on the North Atlantic Right Whales,” the groups wrote in their request filed Monday.

Under the terms of the biological opinion, Dominion must follow NOAA-approved mitigation plans to protect the North Atlantic right while during pile driving and other construction.

Dominion was initially set to begin pile driving to lay the foundation for wind turbines Wednesday. The company says it now plans to begin May 6.

Paul Kamenar, a private attorney representing the coalition, asserted that AliKhan’s order effectively pushed back work on the project while BOEM prepares the report in response.

“Even if they get approval in the next couple of days,” he said, “it doesn’t make sense to do that” when the judge could order Dominion to halt work soon after.

But on Wednesday, Dominion sent out a press release that said any reports that the project would be delayed “blatantly and grossly misrepresent the facts.”

“Our construction schedule has not been altered and stays on schedule,” Slayton said in an email.

Slayton said the company’s protective measures include avoiding pile driving during the whale’s migration season and having observers on board the vessels conducting pile installation to detect and avoid marine life. Vessels are also subject to speed restrictions to avoid collisions, he said.

“The overwhelming consensus of federal agencies and scientific organizations is that offshore wind does not adversely impact marine life,” he said.

This story also appears in Climatewire.