Why LCV’s Potosnak is determined to lead ‘information’ campaign about whale strandings

Head of conservation group says misinformation campaign about offshore wind industry is taking away from important issue: Fighting climate change

Ed Potosnak.

Ed Potosnak, the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, is very clear on the cause of the recent strandings of more than a dozen whales on the coast of New Jersey and New York since December.

“It’s the boats,” he said.

Potosnak, a former high school science teacher who spent time on Capitol Hill before joining LCV nearly a dozen years ago, said following the science — and the scientists — is the only way to find the answer.

The development of the offshore wind industry, still in its earliest stages, is not the cause, Potosnak said — and he said it strongly. Each time there is a stranding, his organization releases a statement saying it is not being caused by the offshore wind industry.

He calls it an “information” campaign to fight a “misinformation” campaign.

“We look to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (in Brigantine), which came out with a very strong statement saying there’s no connection or evidence of connection between the strandings and offshore wind activities,” he said. “That was buttressed as well by reports from independent agencies like BOEM (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).”

The belief that boats have been the cause of the strandings was accentuated by the last stranding, earlier this month, when a 30-foot humpback female that washed onto the beach in Seaside Park had propeller wounds and a fractured skull.

“Every one of them has been found to be a boat,” Potosnak said. “Boats are the No. 1 threat. The second is abandoned fishing nets. And the third is plastic pollution.

“But the greatest threat to whales is climate change, because the water that they live in, in the ocean, is under tremendous stress and threat because it’s getting warmer. We’re seeing coral reefs that are being completely bleached and whole ecosystems that are collapsing — and marine life are facing severe threats because of that collapse.”

Potosnak is equally clear about what (and who) he perceives to be the biggest threat to the whales: the fossil fuel industry. He said he feels they are leading a misinformation campaign about offshore wind in an attempt to protect their own interests, rather than the interests of the whales.

Potosnak said he’s tired of hearing it.

“The folks that really care about marine life need to prioritize those actual threats instead of this misinformation campaign,” he said.

Caesar Rodney Institute responds

David Stevenson, director of the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware, fights back against the idea that his group is funded — and influenced by — the fossil fuel industry.

“Donations follow from donors who agree with our policy recommendations, including some from the oil industry,” he said. “Over the past 15 years, since we were founded, any funding from oil/gas companies was issue-specific and amounted to less than 1% of our funding. Donations never influence our fact-based, well-researched policy conclusions.”

Potosnak specifically cites the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware, an organization he feels is directly tied to the fossil fuel industry, for the misinformation. (The institute disputes the line; see its response in a box in this item.)

Potosnak compares the fossil fuel industry as a whole to the tobacco industry, which — for years — insisted its product was safe.

“They knew that their product was causing people to get cancer, lung cancer and other very serious ailments — and many of our population are still suffering the effects of that — so, they paid folks to go out there and say it wasn’t bad, just so they could make more money,” he said.

ROI-NJ recently spoke with the outspoken Potosnak. Here’s more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s go from offshore wind and whales to offshore wind and climate change: What role do you feel offshore wind can play in the fight against climate change?

Ed Potosnak: We’re very supportive of offshore wind, but it has to be done responsibly. And we are working hard to ensure that we minimize any environmental impacts. But, we’re supportive, because climate change is here. We’ve seen it and the high frequency of major storms. In the 30-year life of someone’s mortgage, they can expect one 100-year storm on average now. So, if we don’t take on the real threat to our way of life and to our oceans, which is climate change, we’re just going to be paying a very big price.

Shore communities, which is an economic engine for our state and just so beautiful and iconic in every way, are on the frontlines of those greater threats from climate change. Not just Superstorm Sandy. Folks are still out of their homes in my neighborhood from Hurricane Ida. And we’re going to see more and more of these more frequent, intense storms.

ROI: How can offshore wind help?

EP: Offshore wind is part of the solution to save our oceans, to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. It’s going to bring good local jobs that can be outsourced here to our state. It’s going to help reduce pollution from our air — we have some of the highest rates of asthma in the country, particularly in communities of color.

I think we need folks to remember why we’re moving forward with responsibly developing offshore wind in the first place, and what it means and what the benefits are. Folks tend to be very distracted by the visuals of strandings and lose sight of why we’re moving towards responsibly developing offshore wind.

ROI: Others — small, but vocal groups — disagree with you. On the issue involving whales. And on the causes of climate change. Your thoughts?

EP: It’s a misinformation campaign from Day One funded by fossil fuels to ensure we’re more addicted for longer to their product, which is polluting our air and water and land and bringing them profits to shareholders. That’s really what’s happening there. Offshore wind is part of the solution to our real greatest threat to the ocean, which is climate change.

ROI: You say this strongly, with no hesitation, and complete confidence.

EP: You have to look at the track record of the fossil fuel industry, which for years had its own scientists verify that their product was causing climate change. And then, they ran a PR campaign specifically to say humans are not causing climate change or global warming. Those are the facts.

They’ve created a misinformation picture for residents that’s not even close to accurate. There are no wind turbines off the coast of New Jersey at this time, but I met a woman the other day who told me she hears them at night.

I think it’s really important that folks know that there’s not a lot of activity happening right now.

ROI: Give us more of your background — and how LCV operates?

EP: My background is in chemistry, synthetic organic chemistry (bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rutgers University). I went on to teach high school chemistry for about 10 years. And then I worked on the Hill for a member of Congress (Rep. Mike Honda), specializing in energy and the environment and education. Then I came back to New Jersey and I started with New Jersey LCV and working to advance policies and inform elected officials about issues that will help protect our environment for future generations.

We are a beginning-to-end environmental organization. In 2014, we helped pass the constitutional amendment to dedicate funding for open space. In 2017, we helped pass a law ensuring natural resource damage funds were going back to communities that were harmed. We have a really strong track record of putting the environment first.

Interestingly, our public policy director, Allison McLeod, is a marine scientist — and she has been a marine mammal observer out in the water. It really doesn’t get more helpful for the work that we’re doing. So, on the science side, our organization is very well-positioned to make assessments.

ROI: All of that is great — until you see whales wash up on shore. Those are tough images. People are understandably looking for a cause.

EP: When you first hear (that the offshore wind industry could be the problem), you think, ‘This is awful.’ It sounds terrible. But then, you realize it’s a lie.

One of the things that’s happened is equal time in the press. It means this false narrative keeps getting to more and more ears and minds. But, I think what we’re seeing is, with time, folks are realizing that it doesn’t really sound right. They realize that the activities related to offshore wind are very limited and that the industry is nascent — that offshore wind is established in a lot of other areas and there’s no connection to stranding there. I think more and more folks are starting to learn the facts.