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Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Review & Opinion

Ørsted’s Withdrawal Opens an Opportunity to Reconnect

An aerial snapshot of the five turbines that make up Ørsted's Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island. Ørsted is the Danish company behind the Ocean Wind 1 project. 
An aerial snapshot of the five turbines that make up Ørsted’s Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island.

This week many of us in Cape May County were shocked with the news that the Danish wind energy firm Ørsted was withdrawing from both of its Ocean Wind projects off our coast.

In Trenton, Gov. Phil Murphy reacted with public anger, calling the firm’s action “outrageous” and claiming it “calls into question the company’s credibility and competence.”

In Cape May County, officials held a news conference to celebrate the role the county’s “unrelenting opposition” played in Ørsted’s decision.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-1st) likened the events to David besting Goliath yet again. He called for vigilance to ensure that “the remaining projects proposed off our coast meet the same fate.”

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club say they will “continue to push for solutions and the responsible development of offshore wind.” Murphy promises that he “remains committed to ensuring that New Jersey becomes a global leader in offshore wind.”

Whatever comes next, it should not be a reply of what we just experienced.

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There is not enough power in any executive order to compel compliance with actions that will upend parts of life as we know it and potentially add enormous new costs in the bargain.

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Regardless of the position you take on offshore wind, from hardcore advocate to never in my lifetime enemy, what the experience we have just had with Ørsted shows is that a top down, no questions asked, power push for offshore wind will not work. It is time to press reset and proceed in a different manner.

Why was New Jersey so adamant in forcing its offshore wind initiative in the first place? It began with the threat of climate change. It involved a lack of faith in the citizenry’s ability to understand and support a major transformation and it ended as could have been predicted. This was in part because it lacked the essential element of broad public understanding and buy-in.

No doubt the threat of man-induced climate change is at the root of the dramatic efforts to completely transform the state’s energy profile. But one cannot build the requisite public support by simply promising that the transition will be painless and will result in an Edenic world of high-paying jobs, national prominence and reduced risk of climate catastrophe.

Transformation means upheaval. It means pain getting from point A to point B. It means there will be losers as well as winners, perhaps many more losers in the short term. The state’s citizenry is capable of enduring through the ups and downs that are a necessary, unavoidable aspect of rapid, fundamental change. But this is only possible if they understand and buy-in to the need.

There is not enough power in any executive order to compel compliance with actions that will upend parts of life as we know it and potentially add enormous new costs in the bargain.

We are being asked to shoulder the burden of what would likely be the greatest economic transformation of any of our lifetimes. We are being asked to trust that the result will come with costs that are within our ability to afford. We are being asked to accept dislocations that we do not even yet foresee. And we are expected to accept that we will undo a system of interconnected parts that took centuries to evolve following the industrial revolution, undoing it in a matter of two decades.

Why? Because we must, that is the answer provided. Not good enough is the appropriate reply.

The pause button has been pushed by circumstances. It presents an opportunity to use this time to reconnect with the citizenry in an open, honest and nonpartisan way. Hundred-page documents, climate action plans and government environmental studies are not enough.

The 1,400-page environmental impact study for Ocean Wind I was a clear giveaway that the public was not to be given a document they could actually work with and understand.

The issue is simple. The Murphy administration needs to sell its program in comprehensible language, with honesty about the likely sacrifices, with realistic projections of the program’s benefits and timeframe. Having the deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Protection say at a Sweeney Center conference that there is no time left for talking is both arrogant and condescending.

The push to electric cars, which lack a support infrastructure, the drive to electrify the home, the newly realized need to maintain and perhaps enhance nuclear power, the use and misuse of taxpayer-paid subsidies, the significant needs of the electric grid – the list could go on.

These things cannot remain disconnected pieces of some vague, ill-formed plan. It is time to explain what we know and don’t know, what we need to do and why, and what the negatives as well as the positives are likely to be.

Accomplishing this type of transformation is impossible without broad popular support. It is time to bring the discussion to a level where the citizenry can understand it and perhaps through that understanding embrace it.

Gaining support for broad across-the-board change is hard. In a democracy, it is even harder. But without it, success will always be elusive.

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From the Bible: I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Job 42:22

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