From Whale Oil to Wind Power: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Is an Ocean of Hypocrisy

May 8, 2024 | 7:00 am
Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

Call me Ishmael.

Some years ago, I began to feel the most important thing I could do was learn how to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy.  I had seen from an early age how oil dependency distorted and aggravated conflicts around the world, especially in the Middle East.

For 30 years I have been an advocate for offshore wind development off New England’s coast and for the creation of institutions to support a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It was never going to be an easy task. New England has fewer energy production facilities and less experience with new energy development than most regions. In New England, the wind is powerful, but land with strong wind is limited.

After years of federal, state, and local efforts supporting the required environmental, engineering, and business plans to transition this region to clean energy, the arrival of wind farms out at sea is a reason to celebrate, yet the distortions and oil-driven conflicts continue.

Today, oil producers are spreading disinformation about offshore wind in the worst way. They are sowing distrust and doubt and wasting precious time during which we should be accelerating wind power development. Fossil fuel interests are manipulating people along the coast and throughout the US by redirecting attention away from their ongoing damage to the climate and towards endangered whales.   

I recently got a glimpse of this new energy supply out at sea, first from shore and then on a visit with others seeking to learn more. This long search for something so large in the ocean brought to mind the classic American novel, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. From a library shelf thick with New England literature, I found the villains in Moby Dick, like now, were dealers of oil.

Tour for East Coast leaders presently hosting windfam and West Coast leaders learning. Credit: Mike Jacobs
I joined community leaders to visit Vineyard Wind off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Here the group was discussing new offshore windfarms. Source: Mike Jacobs.

Offshore oil and lies about killing whales

New England had a huge energy industry in an earlier era: the whaling industry.  It massacred whales to reduce their bodies to oil for lighting homes and lubricating machines.

Moby Dick is about a whale hunt organized in New England under the guise of the economics of the time, but the hunt was actually motivated by emotion. Melville’s villain, Captain Ahab, is maniacally focused on killing a particular whale that represents something other than just potential oil. The crew of Ahab’s ship, including Ishmael the narrator, sign on for a typical whale hunt, but they are unable to keep the captain from pursuing his irrational hunt in search of Moby Dick, an enormous white whale. The crew are motivated by whaling’s monetary incentives, and Ahab exploits them with an added reward for the first man who sights Moby Dick. Ahab manipulates the crew with disinformation and enticements of personal wealth.

Ahab accuses a whale named Moby Dick of being evil; he turns a hunt for oil into a righteous fight to cover his own flaws. Repeatedly, Ahab conjures fabulous lies to shroud his personal passion for vengeance. The story culminates in a confrontation with the whale that, unlike business as usual, was fatal for Ahab and nearly all of his crew.

Melville’s novel is a classic in part because it presents alternate perceptions of the crew’s experiences. Melville was an insightful critic of hypocrisy in America in the years before the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people in America. He clearly is sympathetic to the multicultural crew and respects people of color engaged in, what at the time was, a global endeavor.

Disinformation and hypocrisy today

Still, the crew killed whales for oil. If Melville were alive today writing about the energy industry, he likely would treat the fossil fuel industry’s spreading of disinformation about offshore wind with the same kind of warning about manipulated passions and ill-intended leaders.

Today, the oil industry has created a similar distortion of private interests and a portrait of evil cast on others. As with Ahab, there are dangers to those who are swept up in this disinformation.

Extracting oil is still dangerous for whales (and workers and the environment). After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists found that one of the whales killed by the oil spill was a member of a unique species called the Rice’s whale. The federal government has not yet officially recognized the species’ habitat or established regulations for drilling and ship movements that would protect that whale’s habitat, which is damaged by thousands of oil and gas platforms and underwater pipelines. But oil companies and congressional delegations from states along the gulf show no interest in protecting the whale. Their priority is to shield the offshore oil industry from regulations that would protect it.

Firefighters battle blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in April 2010. Source: U.S. Coast Guard.

The oil industry and its surrogates today run a disingenuous disinformation campaign to protect oil producers in the Gulf of Mexico, the center of US offshore oil production, from regulations recognizing endangered whales. That goal conflicts with the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to portray offshore wind as a problem for whales in the North Atlantic.

Oil industry advocates have created and backed a series of challenges to offshore wind, cynically crying concern about alleged risks to whales. They call for deregulating their own industry, while they call for greater regulatory oversight of offshore wind. This network of opponents to offshore wind includes the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Caesar Rodney Institute,  Manhattan Institute and Heartland Institute, all funded at times by fossil fuel companies ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron. These oil industry supporters have funded more than one unsuccessful fishermen’s suit against offshore wind permitting.

Warning from an American classic

Ahab saw in the whale the embodiment of all evil. He drove his ship and crew on a monomaniacal hunt. Melville, through his narrator Ishmael, warned that dictators will disorient their followers, appealing to their addictions to oil, big paychecks, and elusive promises. Following the captain, and following the manipulations of the oil industry captains today, without knowing why and without seeing yourself in this energy debate—that’s what is dangerous.

On my recent trip to see the Vineyard Wind offshore facility, I shared my efforts to build a positive engagement with offshore wind, an industry that now brings benefits to people in the coastal community with new jobs and harbor investments, as well as funding for energy resilience and bill payments. Local, constructive conversations about the first 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind and 132 megawatt South Fork Wind projects continue to shape the transition away from fossil fuels.

Ahab led his crew to their destruction and death. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry champions the pursuit of fossil fuel no matter the cost to people and the stability of our coastal communities. We can do much better. I have seen a calmer, steadier future.