State Impact: Wind Energy Expansion Divides Lawmakers and Citizens
StateImpact: Wind energy expansion divides lawmakers and citizens
Oklahoma continues to be an attractive location for wind energy companies. And for many landowners, wind farms can be a financial windfall. But as StateImpact’s Joe Wertz reports, as producers expand into northeast Oklahoma, opponents have taken the fight to the State capitol.
Joe Bush grew up in Dallas. During the frenzied 1980s oil boom, he worked as a tax accountant for a big petroleum company in Texas. After the bust, he moved here to be a cattleman on the ranch his grandfather built near Shidler in Northeastern Oklahoma’s Osage County.
“As you can tell, I sit on top of a bald hill,” Bush says.
And there’s money in having a hill. Bush’s Tower Hill ranch is named for the opportunity elevation has brought this family. AT&T first leased land to build a microwave tower to connect long-distance telephone calls. Years later, land was leased out for cell phone towers. Bush hopes the next towers built on his ranch will carry turbines.
“It is one of the windiest places around, and I hope they’re able to do the deal,” Bush says.
“Money pretty good?” I ask.
“Yeah!” Bush replies. ”I mean, if they do it. It’ll be real good. It’ll make more money than cattle.”
But the two wind farms planned for Bush’s ranch may never come. A measure being considered by the Oklahoma Legislature, Senate Bill 1440, would impose a moratorium on new wind energy projects east of Interstate 35 until 2017 while the state conducts studies. To escape the wind, I follow Bush inside his home. He’s confused.
“Wind should be the new oil for Oklahoma,” Bush says. ”It’s good for the environment, it’s good for living things in Oklahoma. I don’t understand why the politicians aren’t really embracing it.”
State Representative Earl Sears of Bartlesville is the House sponsor of the moratorium bill. There are no wind farms planned for his northeastern Oklahoma district, but projects are planned for neighboring counties.
“The wind blows on the eastern part of the state, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if it blows enough to generate and hold profits for a wind power company,” Sears says. ”I am all about property owner and property rights. But on the same token, this just isn’t a typical little building out in the backyard or on the prairie-side.”
Wind energy is a newcomer to northeastern Oklahoma, but wind farm projects have met vicious resistance even in western parts of the state, where they’re a lot more common. Landowners are eager to sell leases, but many worry about how the spinning blades will affect wildlife. And other landowners don’t like the turbines’ noise and flickering shadows. Back in Osage County, Bush thinks he knows what his neighbor’s top complaint is.
“Really what it boils down to is he doesn’t want to see it. It’s new. I don’t tell him what to do with his ranch, if he doesn’t want to see them — don’t look,” Bush says.
“You’ve seen these things, like you’ve said, when you drive out in western Oklahoma — and maybe you’ve seen them in other states — but have you been up near one?” I ask Sears.
“You know, I have not,” he answers, “and I need to make that visit, you are absolutely correct. All the wind farms that I have seen have been from the highway, and you see them off in the distance.”
The legislative session is ongoing, and Sears says Senate Bill 1440, the moratorium measure, is a work in progress. While it might fail, there’s at least one sign it could prevail: The bill was written by the top Republican in the State Senate, Brian Bingman.
StateImpact is a collaboration of NPR stations in Oklahoma. For more information visit StateImpact.NPR.org.