A New Jersey state Senate candidate who has made criticism of offshore wind energy a top plank of his campaign represented a company that sought to build the power lines to bring that wind power ashore.
“Whales and dolphins are dying up and down the Jersey shore,” Steve Dnistrian, a Republican challenging Democratic state Sen. Vin Gopal in the 11th District, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, from an anti-offshore wind demonstration in March. “Gov. Murphy, listen to the people of NJ. Just put things on pause with offshore wind until we can understand what’s happening to our ocean.”
But just months before, Dnistrian, who runs a branding and strategic communications firm, represented LS Power Grid, which was one of more than a dozen companies vying to build infrastructure — including large power lines — to bring offshore wind energy inland. The lines, which could cost ratepayers billions of dollars but are essential to the Murphy administration’s clean energy goals, would connect the next generation of offshore wind farms to the existing power grid.
While Dnistrian’s opponent and his supporters charged hypocrisy, Dnistrian said in a phone interview the timing of his work for LS Power Grid and his campaign was “good luck” for him because “I’m very well-briefed on this issue.” Asked if he has acknowledged his work for LS Power Grid on the campaign trail, Dnistrian said he’s cited his experience in the energy sector but said “I don’t mention clients, because I’m under agreements, which is very standard in the business world.”
“My role with LS Power has provided me with an unusual depth of knowledge about this issue to inform the debate and to stop playing politics and just try to be that reasonable center person that people are dying for,” Dnistrian said Wednesday. Dnistrian provided “advisory services” to the company, including an assessment of local opinion on the projects, he said.
Gopal, who in a constituent publication recently expressed opposition to offshore wind projects, slammed Dnistrian for “hypocritical double dealing.”
“If we can not trust that he will honestly discuss a major issue facing our shoreline, and clearly separate his personal financial interests from those of the public, how can families trust him to act in their interests over his own on any of the major issues facing their future? Clearly, he will say and do anything to get elected,” Gopal said in a statement.
New Jersey has approved three wind farms off New Jersey’s coast. But a recent poll showed that while offshore wind energy was not long ago overwhelmingly viewed positively by New Jerseyans, support — while still above water — has plunged amid political polarization of the issue.
New Jersey and other East Coast states have seen a spate of dead whales and dolphins washing up on its beaches, leading to activists and one prominent New Jersey environmental group to blame sonar testing of the sea bed at potential windmill building sites. Republicans have seized on the issue, making it one of the two most dominant ones this election cycle, along with how schools handle sex education and transgender students.
And the 11th, a swing district which includes many Monmouth County beach towns and thrives on summer tourism, is ground zero for the controversy.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and other experts have said there’s no evidence the sonar testing is contributing to the whale deaths, despite their correlation with testing. In May, New Jersey DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette blamed warming seas attracting the whales’ prey closer to shore, which combined with increased shipping traffic have led to more whale strikes. Many of the whales that have washed up showed signs of being hit by ships.
Most New Jersey environmental advocacy groups have remained supportive of the offshore wind industry. According to the NOAA, an “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales along the East Coast began in 2016, stretching from Maine to Florida.
LS Power proposed a suite of options known as Clean Energy Gateway that an independent analysis found would have cost between $1.3 billion and $2.2 billion. Ultimately, state utility regulators went with a more modest suite of projects, of which LS Power Grid got a small slice.
Dnistrian’s timeline on X is full of critical tweets about offshore wind, but there’s just one hint that he worked for a firm looking to get involved in the new industry. The only clue Dnistrian worked for LS Power Grid was an April 2022 link he tweeted to a press release from the company urging New Jersey to include “comprehensive cost containment measures” in the offshore wind development process.
While LS Power is not building the windmills, there would be no point to building the infrastructure without them since it is critical to getting power inland.
Accusations of hypocrisy on both sides
Dnistrian was active in trying to raise LS Power Grid’s profile. One afternoon last fall, he emailed a POLITICO reporter wondering why the company hadn’t been mentioned in a story about companies vying to build offshore wind energy transmission projects. He wrote, “I represent LS Power Grid.”
“Can you please update your piece and include LSPower Grid in this line up?” he said in that Oct. 24 email. “Our sense is that LS Power Grid is a serious contender for the transmission job.”
In his interview with POLITICO, Dnistrian stressed that he is not opposed to offshore wind and is not certain whether the projects are contributing to whale deaths.
“A dead whale washed up on the beach in Vin Gopal’s hometown, and still he dismisses it as having nothing to do with it. I’m not that smart …. But it’s worth checking out,” Dnistrian said.
Dnistrian also said the state has not been transparent about what the windmills will cost ratepayers. “Either they know what the cost is and they’re not telling us, or they don’t know what the cost is to ratepayers. Which scenario is worse?” (The New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel has raised concerns about the costs of the projects).
Gov. Phil Murphy in July signed a law that barely squeaked through the Legislature allowing one of the developers, Ørsted, to keep hundreds of millions in federal tax incentives that otherwise would have gone to ratepayers. Gopal voted against the measure.
Robert Shimko, business manager for IBEW Local 400 — which has been supportive of Gopal, who is a member of the union — is frustrated with Dnistrian’s opposition to offshore wind. Shimko said wind would provide his workers in Monmouth and Ocean counties with a “tremendous amount of jobs” for “10 years at least.”
Shimko said that Dnistrian at a fundraiser last year even introduced him to a LS Power Grid executive and had sought to set up a meeting between him and company officials. Shimko said he believes the executive was Scott Carver, LS Power’s associate general counsel. Carver did not respond to an email seeking comment.
“I was very disappointed to find out when he was working for LS Power,” Shimko said. “Wind was fantastic, but now that he’s running to be senator, he’s against wind, which is baffling to me. I didn’t think he was that type of person.”
Gopal has faced his own charges of hypocrisy on offshore wind. An August newsletter to constituents from his office featured an entry headlined “Gopal votes ‘no’ on the Orsted ocean wind turbine project, calls for investigation on impact of offshore wind.”
And despite passing the tax credit bill, New Jersey Democratic legislative leaders this summer began playing defense on offshore wind, with Senate President Nick Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin issuing a joint statement critical of the Board of Public Utilities for soliciting bids for more offshore wind projects. They said there were “many unanswered questions about the economic impact these projects will have on ratepayers as well as potential impacts to one of our state’s largest economic drivers, tourism at the shore.”
Republicans hit Gopal for hypocrisy, as in a TV interview where he called those making a connection between wind turbines and whale deaths “conspiracy theorists.”
But Gopal said in a statement that his position has been consistent because his concerns relate to the potential costs to ratepayers, the windmills’ potential effect on the shore’s economy and the environmental impact “of the actual construction when it happens.”
“I am dedicated to following the facts and getting to the truth — unlike my opponent who literally got paid by an offshore wind transmission company less than a year ago and now is railing against the industry he was just paid by,” Gopal said.