StateImpact Oklahoma
7:47 am
Thu July 24, 2014

Why Oklahoma’s Wind Energy Future Could Be Shaped by Osage County

Oklahoma is moving up the national ranks in wind-generated electricity. But as wind farms expand into northeastern Oklahoma, developers are facing a team of unlikely allies: Oil interests and environmentalists. But as StateImpact’s Joe Wertz reports, the wind farm fight in Osage County could affect the whole state.

The males are rowdy, the females are frisky. It’s bison breeding season in Oklahoma. This is the time when horns lock and fur flies.

“What that big guy is doing is he’s telling everybody, ‘This is my girl, stay away,’” says Bob Hamilton.  He’s the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawkuska in Osage County. This grassland used to span 140 million acres across 14 states, and was one of the continent’s largest ecosystems.

“Unfortunately, it’s our most highly impacted ecosystem type in North America,” Hamilton says.  “Even more highly impacted, percentage-wise, than the rainforest.”

Today, less than 5 percent of the tallgrass prairie remains in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma. The bison and birds, especially grouse like the greater prairie chicken, need wide open spaces to thrive. Hamilton says this grassland survived because it’s situated atop a rocky rise that was hard for farmers to plow. But elevation has attracted interest from the wind-energy industry. It seems the bison aren’t the only ones butting heads in this prairie. Hamilton and the preserve have been fighting to keep the turbines away.

“It’s a real estate issue,” Hamilton says.  “Location, location, location. Where you put industrial wind development can be a tremendously critical decision, especially if you’re talking about at-risk species and ecosystems that are at risk.”

Wind-energy is becoming a big deal in Oklahoma. In 2013, this state was the country’s fourth-largest wind power producer. Wind farms are a common sight in western Oklahoma, but the industry is new to northeastern Oklahoma. Developers say the wind here is good, and this region is close to electrical infrastructure. That makes it cheaper to get wind power to the grid. But resistance has been fierce. A key question local and state officials are wrestling with: Where do one person’s property rights end, and another person’s begin? On one side you have landowners like Frank Robson, one of the loudest anti-wind farm voices in Oklahoma.

“Most people don’t move to the country to have an industrial unit right next to their house,” Robson says.  “How would you like to have a 495-foot turbine that goes ‘woosh, woosh, woosh’ and never shuts down?”

On the other side, there are landowners like Joe Bush, who has leased out land for two wind farm projects in Osage County.

“Stay on your side of the fence,” Bush says.  “That’s not how we do things in America. It’s capitalism, it’s America. Private property is our heritage.”

The Osage Nation has objected to wind-energy projects on the grounds that construction could unearth and disturb native remains and artifacts, and that spinning turbine blades could kill eagles. There’s another element at work here: oil. Members of the Osage Nation own most of the mineral rights. Everett Waller says the council that represents the tribal mineral owners is worried that wind farms could interfere with oil and gas development.

“The site is the problem,” Waller says.  “It’s not the alternate energy. I have a job as chairman of the minerals council to protect my shareholders. This is a business. We’re in the oil business.”

The Corporation Commission is considering new statewide rules and regulations for the wind industry. That process has just started, but the debate is already being shaped by the fight here in Osage County.