But that attack conflicts with a theme that Republicans such as former President Donald Trump have hammered for months — the claim that Biden is killing whales in the Atlantic by promoting wind farms.
The dueling assertions — neither backed up by science or facts — have prompted Republicans and Democrats to accuse each other of hypocrisy when it comes to safeguarding whales from offshore energy projects.
The attacks are flaring at a time when a spate of mysterious whale strandings off the East Coast has created awkward optics for Biden’s plans for a huge expansion of maritime wind power.
At the same time, his administration has proposed to protect the endangered Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico by delaying oil and gas leases in more than 28,000 square miles of the creature’s habitat.
The GOP’s newfound focus on whales is a “weird fixation,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity. He attributed the clashing messages to whether Republicans support or oppose the offshore industry in question.
“Whatever industry is dominant that they are supporting and supported by — that’s what really motivates them,” Hartl said.
The TV ad, which aired during this month’s Republican presidential debate on NBC, was produced by a group called Building America’s Future, which Virginia corporate records indicate is based in D.C. So was an F-bomb-laden alternative version that was posted online before being taken down.
The group, whose leaders have worked on causes such as promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign and assisting Federalist Society co-Chair Leonard Leo’s push for a more conservative Supreme Court, did not respond to requests for comment.
The ads don’t explain what an “E-ZPass lane for whales” is, but the group’s website links it to the Biden administration’s proposed protections for the Rice’s whale. The TV spot aired the same day that a House committee approved a GOP bill to block those protections.
When it comes to another endangered whale hundreds of miles away, Republicans are taking a decidedly different tone in accusing the offshore wind industry of killing the animals.
Republicans from Congress to state legislatures and the presidential trail have increasingly raised alarms about right whale deaths off the East Coast. They contend that the nascent offshore wind industry — embraced by Biden and Democrats — is to blame, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
“In 50 years, one whale was hit by a boat, but the windmills have driven hundreds of whales onto shore,” Trump said at a campaign rally last month.
GOP candidates in legislative elections in New Jersey, which has seen a number of dead or dying whales wash onto beaches recently, tried to use anti-wind sentiment to their electoral advantage this month with little success.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have tried to crack down on offshore wind in the Atlantic, including by demanding research into potential harms to whales. And last month, after the demise of a major wind project off the coast of New Jersey, Trump congratulated Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), one of the loudest voices in Congress looking to tie offshore turbines to whale deaths.
“The whales, which are dying in record numbers because of these wind scams, are very happy tonight,” Trump said on his social media platform, Truth Social. “Way to go Jeff.”
‘Moderately moving train wreck’
Conservation advocates say the GOP is making all the wrong moves. Oil and gas drilling vessels account for about 40 percent of the traffic in the Gulf of Mexico, so restricting traffic and speeds likely would help whales there.
But offshore wind is still in its earliest stages in the Atlantic, and claims about the industry hurting the animals there haven’t been proven.
“If you’re really concerned about whales being affected by energy projects, I’ve got a whale in the Gulf of Mexico that I’d like you to meet,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney who has been working on the group’s litigation to keep Rice’s whale protections in place.
“You ought to be way more concerned about the Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico, which is being driven to extinction, largely by offshore drilling,” Mashuda said. “It’s a moderately moving train wreck.”
Mashuda’s group was in federal court this past week demanding tighter restrictions on drilling in the Gulf to protect Rice’s whale from a planned oil and gas lease sale by Biden’s Interior Department.
Lawyers for the petroleum industry contended that too little is known about the newly discovered species’ range to warrant the limits on sales. The court ruled Tuesday against Earthjustice and other environmental groups.
Mashuda said both the right whale and Rice’s whale face an array of threats related to fishing, energy exploration and pollution, among other concerns. But targeting one industry — oil and gas — would make a big improvement in the Gulf.
“A lot of the arguments being made about right whales are directly contrary to the arguments that largely the same people are making with respect to the Rice’s whale,” he said.
Hartl, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said he doubts many Americans believe the rhetoric outside of Republican base voters.
But he’s concerned when he sees some Democrats buy in, such as Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who has joined other Maine lawmakers in fighting against pro-whale policies that the lobster fishing industry has opposed.
“It’s concerning when we see some of this same rhetoric being adopted by Democrats, who are sometimes falling for it because it seems like an easy out,” he said.
Action in Congress
The Building America’s Future ad debuted the same day Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee approved Louisiana Republican Rep. Garret Graves‘ “Requiring Integrity in Conservation Efforts (RICE’s Whale) Act,” H.R. 6008, which aims to undo the administration’s efforts to protect the species from offshore oil and natural gas drilling.
The administration proposal “doesn’t have anything to do with the whale,” said Graves. “This has to do with another tool in the tool chest to actually stop energy production in the Gulf of Mexico.”
As for the group behind the ad, Building America’s Future reveals little about its operation on its website.
However, Virginia records show that its president is Chris Jankowski, a Republican operative who is also a longtime consultant for Leo’s dark money operation. Jankowski is also the executive director of the Never Back Down super PAC, which is backing DeSantis’ 2024 presidential run.
The group’s deputy executive director is Katherine Neal, the vice president of P2 Pathway Public Affairs, a consultancy firm founded by senior DeSantis adviser Phil Cox, according to the records.
Jankowski, Leo, Neal, Cox and Never Back Down did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did DeSantis’ office.
The Rice’s whale is among the most endangered species on the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists believe only about 50 remain in existence.
They can be found in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, at depths of 100 to 400 meters along the De Soto Canyon region off the Florida Panhandle region.
They were not even discovered as a distinct species until 2021.
The whales are “threatened by vessel strikes, acoustic disturbance from seismic airguns and other oil and gas-related activities, military training activities, vessel noise, entanglement in commercial fishing and aquaculture gear, marine debris, and pollution from agricultural runoff and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico,” according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
The oil industry has already proved to be devastating for the whale’s longevity, and researchers estimate about a fifth of its population died because of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.
The new protections could have a ripple effect on offshore energy, including wind turbines as well as oil and natural gas, said Erik Milito, head of the National Ocean Industries Association, which lobbies for offshore energy.
“For oil and gas, it will have a significant impact on the ability for the companies to plan for, construct and then operate the offshore productions facilities and also to do the exploration activities when it comes to exploring for and finding oil and gas,” he said.
As Republicans question protections for the Rice’s whale and demand scrutiny of the offshore wind industry’s effects on the right whale, they criticized the administration’s moves to protect species from other harms in the Atlantic — such as speed limits in some areas for recreational boaters and restrictions on the kinds of nets some commercial fishermen can use.
During debate on Graves’ bill, House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) acknowledged the lopsided treatment different whales are getting. But he pointed the finger at Democrats.
“It seems like there’s a big whale issue in our country that’s kind of gone off the radar, because all of the sudden the focus is on Rice’s whales in the Gulf, which, to my knowledge, I don’t think one has shown up washed up on the beach anytime recently,” he said.
“But I do know that dozens and dozens of whales on the Atlantic coast have been washing up on the beach,” Westerman continued.