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wind fight

New Jersey County Drafts Right-Wing Legal Movement Into Anti-Wind Fight

To fight an offshore wind project, the county has hired a law firm with extensive ties to a national right-wing legal movement determined to put a halt to climate policy.

People stand on a beach, with one man holding a sign that says WIND KILLS WHALES. A whale-shaped balloon flies overhead.
Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Getty Images
A “Save the Whales” rally calls for a halt to offshore wind energy development along the Jersey Shore on February 19.

For years, ostensibly scrappy anti-wind activists have waged war against Ocean Wind 1, a project by the Danish company Ørsted that would build as many as 98 wind turbines 15 miles off the coast of southern New Jersey. But, like other local offshore wind fights up and down the East Coast, they’re now getting national help.

Last week, the entirely GOP-controlled Board of Commissioners of Cape May County called in the big guns, voting to bring in the Washington D.C.–based Marzulla Law Firm to help stop the project, with a focus on challenging federal regulatory decisions. Like other members of the fight against offshore wind, the firm has extensive ties to a national right-wing legal movement less concerned with the aesthetics of the Jersey Shore than with putting a halt to climate policy more generally. (The County Board of Commissioners did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Offshore wind in the Atlantic could be a powerhouse of clean energy for the United States. But as the Biden administration throws its support behind multiple projects up and down the coast, right-wing interests have sensed an opportunity to maximize local opposition and grassroots resistance to wind.

Founded in 1997 by husband and wife duo Nancie Marzulla and Roger Marzulla Jr., Marzulla Law has taken on a number of clients fighting offshore wind developments on the East Coast, including Save Long Beach and the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, which is battling Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts. Their extensive connections to polluters and GOP power players highlight how much clean energy opponents are relying on veterans in the fight against climate policy.

The Marzullaswho both declined to comment—have a storied history in the conservative legal movement. The couple met in the early 1980s while working at the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, devoted, as founding boss James Watt put it, to fighting “excessive bureaucratic regulation and the stifling economic effects resulting from the actions of extreme environmentalist groups and no-growth advocates.”

Founded in 1976, the nonprofit law firm was part of a movement of property rights lawyers looking to counter environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act. Among its earliest backers was the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts. As The Washington Post reported at the time, the trusts received much of their income from Gulf Oil, which had a vested interest in uranium and coal mining, as well as oil drilling, on the federal lands that Mountain States worked to open for commercial development. Other funders at the time included Chevron, Marathon Oil, and Shell.

The connections formed at the Mountain States Legal Foundation eventually led the Marzullas to Washington. Roger Marzulla Jr. took over for Watt as head of the foundation when he was tapped by Ronald Reagan in 1981 to lead the Interior Department, where several Mountain States funders had pending permit requests. Both he and Nancie would go on to serve in the Reagan administration, with stints at the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1991 the Marzullas founded Defenders of Property Rights to, as their website once stated, “counterbalance the governmental threat to private property as a result of a broad range of regulations.” The group’s board included a who’s who of the era’s GOP stars, including doomed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Reagan White House Attorney General Edwin Meese. Its early work—backed by funding from Phillip Morris—looked to recast indoor smoking bans as a violation of property rights and personal freedom. Defenders of Property rights was also a member of the Get Governments Off Our Backs coalition, set up with help from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to convince elected officials of the need to “reduce the size of government and the number of needless regulations at all levels of government.”

Defenders of Property Rights went on to join the Cooler Heads Coalition, an early group of climate deniers that received funding from ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and hedge fund billionaires and right-wing donor powerhouses the Mercers to “undercut the conventional wisdom on climate science.”

Today, the Marzullas are members of the Federalist Society, the legal society spearheaded by right-wing operative Leonard Leo. They’re also members of the Republican National Lawyers Association; in 2020, that group received a $500,000 donation from Robert Mercer to spearhead a “Navy SEAL-type” operation of lawyers standing by to dispute the results of that year’s presidential election. Mercer’s family foundation has generously bankrolled self-described climate skeptics at the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and other think tanks.

Nancie Marzulla serves on the Advisory Council of the Atlantic Legal Foundation, another beneficiary of Scaife funds, whose achievements last year included filing an amicus brief against the EPA’s exclusion of industry scientists from federal advisory committees. Joining her on the ALF Advisory Council is William Primps of the law firm Cullen and Dykman; the Cape May County Board of Commissioners hired another lawyer from that firm, Anthony Bocchi, to review and challenge the permits issued to Ørsted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Such ties aren’t entirely unusual for the grassroots-branded fight against offshore wind in New Jersey and elsewhere. The Intercept found in 2021 that a donation page for “Save Our Beach Views,” a group of Maryland and Delaware residents opposed to Ørsted’s Skipjack project, redirected to a site hosted by the Caesar Rodney Institute, a Delaware-based affiliate of the Koch brothers–backed State Policy Institute. In 2019 and 2020, the institute received $10,000 from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, according to IRS filings.

The Caesar Rodney Institute also runs the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, a legal defense fund for groups to file lawsuits to fight offshore wind developments on the Eastern Seaboard. David T. Stevenson, CRI’s policy director and a member of Trump’s EPA transition team, told in April that his group maintained a “financial connection” to Protect Our Coast NJ, one of the main groups fighting Ocean Wind 1. Up the coast in New England, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, has involved itself with fishermen in a fight against a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts.

When dead whales started showing up on the Jersey Shore earlier this year, Protect Our Coast NJ member Mike Dean was paraded out by Fox News host Jesse Watters to peddle the disproven talking point that wind companies were to blame for their deaths. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has noted, whale deaths have been happening at an increased rate since at least 2016—well before offshore wind development in the region. Tucker Carlson nonetheless ran a segment titled “The Biden whale extinction,” joining Watters and other Fox hosts in pinning the whales’ deaths on nonexistent wind farms. In a blog posted to the firm’s website in February, Nancie Marzulla wrote that wind developments “compromise basic oceanic life, including the destruction of marine life habitats and the destabilization of the delicate marine ecosystem.”

Local governments are also spreading bad information. Cape May County’s official government site features a page dedicated to opposing Ocean Wind 1, appealing to “second-home owners, small businesses and residents” with flashy graphics alleging that “OFFSHORE WIND FARMS DO NOT REDUCE GLOBAL WARMING OR REDUCE CLIMATE CHANGE.”

Groups fighting offshore wind have made inroads over the last several weeks. Protect Our Coast NJ, Save Long Beach Island, and Defend Brigantine Beach filed an appeal over the Superior Court of New Jersey’s approval of Ocean Wind 1, which sets the stage for Ørsted to begin construction later this year. Spurred by Republicans, the Government Accountability Office will also investigate the New Jersey wind industry’s impacts on the environment, commercial fishing industry, military operations, and marine vessel safety.

The sheer amount of right-wing and industry support being funneled into the fight against offshore wind can make it difficult to delineate between politically motivated attacks on clean energy infrastructure and those—including groups like the Sierra Club and Earthjustice—looking to ensure high-road labor and environmental standards for clean energy development. Following the money, though, is as good a place as any to start.