OCEAN CITY - If talking about wind turbines were enough to turn them, the coming days would be an energy bonanza, with three meetings planned on offshore wind proposals.
Cape May County and Ocean City are first up, with the first of a series of public information sessions set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Ocean City Tabernacle, 550 Wesley Ave.
That meeting will include details of the city and county's challenge to wind energy firm Ørsted's application for state approval to run underground power lines from their offshore turbines to Beesleys Point section of Upper Township.
The next day, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, will hold a hearing on "Offshore Wind Industrialization Along the East Coast," at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Wildwoods Convention Center, 4501 Boardwalk.
Van Drew has become a high profile skeptic of offshore wind plans. Advanced details of the hearing say it will include experts in the fishing industry and in environmental and energy policy, along with advocates for marine ecosystem protection.
Ørsted has been invited to the hearing, but had not committed to attending as of Monday. The Danish company owns Ocean Wind 1, the first of several proposed offshore wind projects, expected to begin construction off the coast by next year.
Ørsted has previously hosted public information sessions, including some in Ocean City, and there has already been extensive public comment on the matter at Board of Public Utilities meetings, recent Upper Township municipal meetings, and at public hearings held remotely by the federal Bureau of Offshore Energy Management last summer.
Some South Jersey residents remain opposed to the wind power projects, citing potential impacts on wildlife migrations, the fishing industry and on grounds the turbines will mar beach views and affect tourism.
Opposition intensified after dead whales washed up on beaches in the Northeast, including in Cape May and Atlantic counties. Wind power critics blame underwater survey work needed for the wind farm, arguing that sound used to map the ocean floor was harming marine life.
On March 20, the Cape May County Democratic Organization plans yet another wind power meeting, this one held remotely starting at 7 p.m.
Cynthia Burton, the press secretary for the Democratic organization, said blaming the wind project surveys for the whale deaths clouds the issue.
"We want to clear the clouds out of the way," she said Monday.
Sunni Vargas, an organizer with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, is set to talk about the benefits of offshore wind power, as a means of reducing climate change and improving the local economy.
But will anyone who is not already in favor of the projects log on?
"People do seem to be more hardened in their positions these days," Burton said. "But giving people good information will help in the conversations in the communities."
Federal authorities and others have said there is no evidence linking the number of recent whale deaths to the survey work, but that has not appeared to convince many along the shore.
But, in announcing his hearing Van Drew said the wind farms will have unknown impact, and cited the whale deaths over the winter.
"These projects will have substantial impacts on the local tourism industry, the fishing industry, and the surrounding environment," Van Drew said. "As vice chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am holding these hearings in order to discover what exactly these impacts will be and to determine what additional pieces of legislation will be adequate to address the issue."
Ed Potosnak with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters describes the hearing much differently.
"Ultimately, it's designed to be a sham meeting to energize MAGA Republicans," he said Monday. "They aren't intended to pursue public policy. It's part of a relentless effort to oppose offshore wind."
Potosnak is one of the organizers of the New Jersey Wind Works Campaign, a coalition of organizations formed in favor of wind energy development. The group has not been invited to participate on Thursday, and he said he is not sure anyone would attend without more details on the format. He suggested anyone speaking in favor of offshore wind power projects would likely be jeered or worse.
Potosnak said Van Drew supported wind power when he was a Democrat, and has since become an opponent after changing parties in 2019. Potosnak does not believe that concern for whales is really the motivation for most offshore power opposition, describing it instead as protected ocean views and the fossil fuel industry.
"The greatest threat to our oceans is climate change," he said. "Whole ecosystems in the marine environment are collapsing."
Offshore wind could be part of a solution, reducing carbon emissions, Potosnak argued.
In several public comments, Van Drew has suggested the reduction in carbon emissions from moving to offshore wind would be negligible. He said it is the wind power proponents who are concerned with energy company profits, but for offshore wind farm companies.
He has been critical of both Gov. Phil Murphy and President Joe Biden for their support for offshore wind power.
In September 2019, Van Drew, then a freshman Democrat who supported wind power, brought a federal hearing to Wildwood to hear from the commercial fishing industry about the potential impacts of offshore wind plans.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said the Wednesday session will give Cape May County and the city the chance to update the public about the project, and to listen to local concerns.
"Things are moving too fast and with too much at stake if we don't get it right," Gillian said.
Much of the discussion from Ocean City and Cape May County officials has been on the route of power lines from Ocean Wind 1 to a planned substation in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township. Ocean City and the county say they, not the state should make the decision on whether to allow that to happen.
"We tried very hard to have productive discussions with the wind developer," said Gillian said. "But they went to the legislature and got a bill through to take away home rule and then they used that to get the BPU, an unelected state agency, to take away the authority of the duly elected leaders of Cape May County and Ocean City and to give this foreign big-wind company what they want."
Leonard Desiderio, the director of the Cape May County Board of Commissioners as well as the mayor of Sea Isle City, said the county had been working closely with Ocean City on how to challenge that process.
"There have been a lot of questions about what steps the county of Cape May has taken in connection with the efforts of the wind company Ørsted to place windmills off the shores of Cape May County," Desiderio said. "We have been working with the city of Ocean City for many months now to challenge the process at the Board of Public Utilities used by Ørsted to set aside home rule. Our partnership continues, including this first of several public information sessions."
Contact Bill Barlow:email@example.comTwitter @jerseynews_bill
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