A Republican group that paid for anti-offshore wind power ads targeting Democrats ahead of New Jersey’s November 7 state legislative elections raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry earlier this year.
The Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) announced in July that it had launched “two five-figure ad buys on the effect of offshore wind projects that are putting the lives of whales in danger; the very same whales that have been washing up on New Jersey beaches.”
There’s no evidence that offshore wind development is responsible for whale strandings and deaths, according to experts at Rutgers, NOAA Fisheries, and the Marine Mammal Commission. Known causes of whale deaths attributable to human activities along the East Coast include vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.
Scientists say that climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels is altering ecosystems and posing risks to whales. Offshore wind has emerged as a linchpin in plans for achieving New Jersey’s goal of reaching 100% clean energy by 2050.
Other groups funded by the fossil fuel industry began spreading disinformation blaming offshore wind development for dead whales found in New Jersey and other East Coast states long before the RSLC’s ads appeared. The RSLC began to echo this misleading claim in April, in a statement targeting New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy.
The RSLC is registered with the IRS as a 527 political organization and is required to file public reports disclosing the contributions it receives and the expenditures it makes.
In its latest Form 8872 report to the IRS, which covered the first six months of 2023, the RSLC reported receiving contributions totaling the following amounts from oil and gas interests, according to the Energy and Policy Institute’s analysis of the report:
- $310,000 from Marathon Petroleum
- $100,000 from Devon Energy
- $50,000 from Ovontiv (formerly Ecana Oil & Gas USA Inc.)
- $30,000 from EQT Corporation
- $27,500 from CNX Resources
- $25,000 from the American Petroleum Institute
- $15,000 from Energy Transfer
Coal producer Consol Energy contributed another $15,000.
The RSLC also received $200,000 from Koch Industries, which produces, refines and sells fossil fuels, and reported $50,000 in contributions from the Koch-founded and funded political group Americans for Prosperity.
Chevron paid over $762,000 to the RSLC in 2022.
The RSLC’s New Jersey PAC said in a September filing with the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission that it planned to make $1 million in independent expenditures in support of Republican state candidates during this year’s election.
“The Democrats’ overreach against the use of natural gas is an effective messaging strategy in every major swing district,” the RSLC said in a July memo on New Jersey.
Other groups have also been targeting New Jersey with anti-offshore ads and disinformation:
Fixing New Jersey Inc.
“The Radical Left wants to build giant wind turbines that will impact our Jersey Shore and hurt marine life,” one ad paid for by a group called “Fixing New Jersey” claims on Facebook.
“Fixing New Jersey is a non-profit 501(c)(4) dedicated to increasing voter participation in New Jersey,” the group’s website says.
Fixing New Jersey currently also has pro-gas ads up on Facebook.
As a 501(c)(4) group, Fixing New Jersey does not have to publicly disclose its donors. The group received $25,000 last year from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 825’s PAC, according to a campaign finance report from the IUOE.
IUOE Local 825 has been contracted to work on pipelines that carry methane gas (also called natural gas), a fossil fuel and potent greenhouse gas. Methane gas leaks are a major contributor to climate change. When burned for electricity and heat, methane gas emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
IUOE Local 825 and the affiliated Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative (ELEC 825) have described methane gas as “clean energy” and supported proposals to build new pipelines like the PennEast Pipeline that were ultimately defeated by strong local opposition.
Commerce NJ, which is affiliated with the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, also contributed $1,500 to Fixing New Jersey last year.
Fixing New Jersey appears to have ties to Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor who lost to Murphy in 2021, and plans to run again in 2025, when Murphy won’t be eligible for re-election due to term limits.
Fixing New Jersey filed its certificate of incorporation with the State of New Jersey in January of 2022, a few months after Ciattarelli’s loss. Brittany Wheeler, who was the political director for Ciattarelli’s gubernatorial campaign, served as Fixing New Jersey’s executive director last year before taking a new job with the New Jersey Banking Association.
The political consulting firm Go Big Media helps to manage Fixing New Jersey’s Facebook page. Go Big Media was also paid by the RSLC’s New Jersey PAC earlier this month for telemarketing, robocalls, and text messages. The same firm was paid nearly $4 million by Ciattarelli’s gubernatorial campaign in 2021 and 2022, according to data available online through the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Ciattarelli’s daughter, Alexa, went to work for Go Big Media after working for her father’s campaign.
Earlier this year, Ciattarelli attacked Murphy for supporting offshore wind. Ciattarelli echoed a myth perpetuated by groups that have received money from the fossil fuel industry, like the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute.
“There’s fear that the sonar mapping could be having some kind of adverse effect on marine life, including the whales that are washing up,” Ciattarelli said.
Fixing New Jersey’s Board of Trustees includes Regina Egea, a former staffer to Gov. Chris Christie who is now president of the Garden State Initiative, a New Jersey-based political group that opposes offshore wind. The Garden State Initiative received $171,000 from DonorsTrust, a Koch-aligned dark money portal, in 2021.
Ryan Peters, a former New Jersey state representative who now serves on the Election Law Enforcement Commission, is also listed as a trustee on Fixing New Jersey’s certificate of incorporation.
Affordable Energy for New Jersey
Another 501(c)(4) organization, Affordable Energy for New Jersey (AENJ), has spent nearly $200,000 on Facebook ads that frequently support gas and attack offshore wind and other cleantech, according to the latest data from Facebook’s ad library.
AENJ also sponsors SaveJersey.com, which describes itself as “New Jersey’s #1 source of conservative news, commentary, humor & analysis.”
One section of SaveJersey.com’s front page is titled “Windmills & More” and features multiple articles bashing offshore wind.
“The corrupt High Ed-Trenton coalition is hard at work to justify continued offshore wind development DESPITE a plague of whale and dolphin deaths at the Jersey Shore, Save Jerseyans,” said one SaveJersey.com article from earlier this year.
The article went on to attack Rutgers for publishing a Q&A that explained there is no evidence linking whale mortalities to offshore wind development.
AENJ’s executive director is Ron Morano, who is also CEO of the public relations firm RTM Communications. Morano previously worked as a spokesperson for FirstEnergy and its New Jersey utility, JCP&L.
AENJ reported revenue of $25,000 in 2020 and $30,000 in 2022 on its annual Form 990 reports to the IRS. The group reported no revenue for 2021.
The Local 825 Management Fund, a 501(c)(5) labor organization affiliated with IUOE Local 825, reported that it paid AENJ a total of $55,000 in annual tax reports for fiscal years that included 2020 and 2022.
AENJ’s annual IRS reports don’t capture the full scope of Local 825’s payments to outside firms involved in AENJ’s campaigns. AENJ’s ads from 2020 are labeled as “sponsored by MWWPR” in Facebook’s ad library. MWWPR, which rebranded as MikeWorldWide in 2021 and is also known as the MWW Group, is a public relations firm named after its founder Michael Kempner.
The Local 825 Management Fund reported paying more than $1.2 million to the MWW Group during a fiscal year that included July 2019 through June 2020. For the July 2020 to June 2021 fiscal year, Local 825 Management Fund reported paying more than $390,000 to the MWW Group.
A press release announcing the launch of the AENJ Coalition in 2020 referenced a pro-gas poll by the public opinion firm McGloughlin & Associates. The poll was released a month earlier by ELEC 825. The Local 825 Management Fund reported that it paid McGloughlin & Associates more than $200,000 during the fiscal year when the poll was released.
The AENJ’s coalition also includes industry associations, like the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, that count gas utilities like Southern Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas and PSEG among their members.
IUOE Local 825 and ELEC 825 are also involved in New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a similar pro-gas group whose membership has included the American Petroleum Institute, and the Iroquis, Millennium and Williams pipeline companies.
Disinformation has consequences
Online ads are just one way that disinformation about offshore wind is spreading in New Jersey.
The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) has led anti-offshore wind protests on beaches and boats. CFACT has also partnered with the Heartland Institute and Caesar Rodney Institute-backed American Coalition for Ocean Protection (ACOP) to pay for aerial and billboard advertisements that promote their website, save-whales-stop-windmills.org. CFACT and the Heartland Institute are both anti-climate science groups that have received funding from the coal industry.
Screenshot of a picture of CFACT’s anti-offshore wind billboard found on the group’s website
The disinformation campaigns against offshore wind became so heated earlier this year that the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (MMSC) began to receive threatening messages from offshore wind opponents, as first reported by Time. The MMSC is a New Jersey nonprofit that rescues beached whales and helps determine the cause of death when dead whales are found. It became the target of conspiracy theorists who claimed researchers were covering up evidence that sonar utilized in offshore wind surveys was responsible for dead whales.
The MMSC posts data from recent necropsies of stranded dead whales and other marine mammals on their website, and their findings are consistent with the broader scientific research identifying vessel strikes, entanglements, and natural causes among the likely causes of death.
Utilities, including some who have invested in offshore wind, also funded the RSLC
Unlike the oil and gas industry, some utility companies stand to benefit from offshore wind investments. Despite this, investor-owned utilities and their industry association, the Edison Electric Institute, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the RSLC, the Republican group behind this year’s anti-offshore wind election ads in New Jersey, during the first half of 2023, continuing years of previous support. The RSLC received more than $9 million from utilities between 2008 and 2022.
Dominion Energy, a utility company headquartered in Virginia, has paid $225,000 this year to the RSLC.
Dominion’s funding of a political group that’s spreading disinformation about offshore wind is at odds with the utility company’s plans to build a 2.6 gigawatt offshore wind farm off Virginia’s coast. The Heartland Institute, CFACT, and ACOP are threatening to file a lawsuit aimed at blocking Dominion’s proposed offshore wind farm, based on claims about whale deaths similar to those featured in the RSLC’s ads.
PSEG, a gas and electric utility in New Jersey that stands to benefit from offshore wind by developing transmission infrastructure to bring that electricity to the grid, contributed $25,000 to the RSLC in March. As noted earlier, PSEG is also a member of trade groups listed as supporters of Affordable Energy of New Jersey.
Top image is a screenshot from one of the RSCL’s “Gentle Giants” anti-offshore wind ads
Keriann Conroy assisted with research for this article.