Old friends face off in Oklahoma wind farm debate (Tulsa World)

By Casey Smith

Blue Mound is the highest point on Frank Robson’s Craig County cattle ranch and was once, he says, one of the highest points in the Cherokee Nation.

Robson, who runs a commercial real estate business in Claremore, hopes to build a home and retire on Blue Mound.

Currently, the land overlooks acres of pasture and a small corn crop. Normally there’s wheat, too, but last fall it was too wet to plant at Double R Ranch. On a nice day, Oologah Lake is visible 15 or 20 miles away.

It’s possible 495-foot wind turbines could soon be part of that view, something Robson is fighting to prevent.

“The problem is you work like hell for what you want, and then somebody comes along and wants to destroy it,” he said.

Robson’s arguments against wind turbine construction are the same as those voiced by many turbine opponents across the state. The turbines disrupt the pastoral way of life, are under-regulated and over-subsidized, they say.

But supporters counter that the wind turbines are good for the economy and the environment, and help the country gain energy independence.

The development debate is playing out in rural communities across the state and country. At best, the divide causes a difference of opinion. At worst, it causes the end of decades-long friendships.

Bob Hartley is one of several Craig County landowners who have signed a lease with EDP Renewables, a Portugal-based wind-energy company operating wind farms in 10 states and throughout the world. So far, the company’s Oklahoma footprint includes turbines in Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa counties and a 200-foot tower on Hartley’s ranch to measure wind currents.

Hartley is not sure what the company’s timeline for construction will be. Benefits include job creation and additional revenue for the county and schools, he said.

The lease on Spur Ranch, land that has been in Hartley’s family since the 1930s, generates additional revenue and does not interfere with the ranch’s cattle operation, Hartley said.

Hartley, chairman of Phoenix Coal, is passionate when discussing the role wind energy plays in American energy independence.

“We need the wind and solar and nuclear and oil and gas and all sources of energy,” he said.

Hartley and Robson have been friends for 65 years, ever since Hartley pledged Robson to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Oklahoma State University.

Robson was the best salesman for a mum-selling business Hartley helped run. Robson would walk over to the women attending football games and pin a mum on them. Their dates had no choice but to buy the flower, Hartley said, grinning at the memory.

“I think that’s his privilege to be against it,” Hartley said.

“And he certainly has a right to oppose it. I just have a different view.”

Robson said he believes the industry needs increased regulation and that current tax policies negatively affect the state budget.

Robson is spending money on the fight, too. He has hired two lobbyists to counter representatives of wind energy, employs a marketing expert and is starting an effort called WindWaste to publicize the state’s wind policies.

“They’re sucking all of the money out of the state budget to subsidize the wind energy,” Robson said. “Let them be like we are in business. If they make a profit, they should pay a tax.”

Land tax oversight

In 1985, Oklahoma voters approved a property tax exemption for the first five years for qualifying manufacturing facilities, including those that generate wind power.

Oklahoma reimburses local jurisdictions for the waived property taxes, “though the state hasn’t always been the best at doing that,” said Gene Perry, Oklahoma Policy Institute’s policy director.

Wind energy can also take advantage of the state’s income-tax credits for electricity generated by zero-emission facilities.

But “there’s definitely a lot more money going to the tax breaks for drilling,” Perry said. “Across the board, Oklahoma does not have much oversight over tax breaks for wind energy or fossil fuels or a number of other things.”

Turbine placement is the most heated point in the debate. Because of the turbines’ massive size, neighbors of people who lease their land might be affected.

Just as with oil rigs, the surface placement of wind turbines is controlled at the local level, said Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

As Oklahoma’s wind energy development booms, people are discovering that some rural jurisdictions lack boards to oversee such projects. In those areas, agreements are exclusively between wind companies and landowners.

The Corporation Commission is conducting an inquiry regarding Oklahoma wind-energy development that should be completed by early next year.

Robson cites the current impact of wind power on a western Oklahoma couple as an example of why change is needed.

Tammy Huffstutlar has lived on eight acres just north of Calumet, west of El Reno, for more than 30 years. For the past 18 months, the home where she and her husband, Rick, live has been surrounded by the 135-turbine Canadian Hills wind project. Several turbines are less than 600 feet from their barn.

The turbines are loud, generating a hum similar to what people inside a plane sitting on a runway hear. At times, the blades produce a disturbing flicker that even expensive room-darkening blinds can’t stop, Huffstutlar said.

Health issues more serious than disrupted sleep patterns concern the Huffstutlars. Canadian County is tornado country, and they fear that adding massive turbines to a disaster could make it more devastating.

The night the turbines were turned on, Rick Huffstutlar’s heart began to race again. Previously, his rapid heartbeat disorder had been under control.

But wind-energy projects are safe and nonpolluting, and numerous independent studies have found that there is no evidence they cause adverse health effects or affect property values, according to Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy. Apex developed the Canadian Hills project, now operated by Atlantic Power Corp.

Nodd Kennedy is one of several neighbors in the area who leased acreage to the wind project. He says the energy generated is clean and inexpensive, and makes money for people who lease their land and for the community.

“It’s just like the oil and gas industry: If you’ve got it, you’re tickled, and you’re lucky to have it,” Kennedy said. “I’m lucky to have it.”

He knows Tammy Huffstutlar and some other neighbors dislike the wind farms.

“One of them don’t talk to me,” Kennedy said. “It’s kind of sad. I feel sad about the whole deal.”



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