In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry last year, James Clement Jr., chairman of the board of the fabled King Ranch, vowed that the ranch will fight a new threat to its land as it has all others: “We have been here for 150 years fighting droughts, border raiders, and unstable commodity markets. . . . We are here to stay.”
The new threat, unlike the others, is a recent phenomenon: wind power.
King Ranch Inc., the agricultural holding company that owns the South Texas ranch and other properties, is backing legislation that could choke off the boom in Texas wind energy by requiring new state regulations of wind turbines.
The state does not require permits in most cases for wind farms, which consist of hundreds of enormous turbines that generate electricity.
That would change under House Bill 2794, sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio. The bill would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to establish a permit process to take into account the environmental consequences of wind turbines and whether the noise they create – or just the fact they’re part of a once-unspoiled view – interferes with the property rights of nearby landowners.
King Ranch has been fighting a proposed coastal wind project in Kenedy County, just east of its ranch, that would place 267 turbines along the Gulf’s Laguna Madre.
“People need to take a deep breath and think a little,” Jack Hunt, CEO of King Ranch Inc., said about the Texas wind rush. “It’s a frenzy.”
The bill brings the fight to the state Capitol. It’s already being fought in court. A group of Abilene-area landowners lost the first major case against a wind farm developer in December, when a state district court jury found that wind turbines were not a nuisance to neighbors and rejected their claim for damages.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said opponents of wind energy won’t succeed in the Legislature, either.
“The bill is dead because no one wants to pass it,” said Patterson, who has leased state land for big offshore wind projects to generate more revenue for public education. “This is the King Ranch versus the rest of Texas.”
Texas is an unlikely venue for wind power protests, a cause more associated with Eastern states. In Massachusetts, a wind project off Cape Cod has been stalled for years, and in Maryland and Maine, several wind projects have been rejected as dangers to wildlife and despoilers of mountaintop vistas.
Meanwhile, Texas has become the leading wind power state, in part because of state subsidies, an aggressive target for renewable energy generation and a streamlined process to build transmission lines from remote parts of the state.
The state also has large areas with the right conditions for wind farms, including West Texas and the Gulf Coast.
Texas currently has 2,780 megawatts of wind generation capacity. By 2015, the state target is 5,880 megawatts from all renewable sources, which would be about 5 percent of state generation capacity.
The wind doesn’t blow constantly, though, so the actual production from wind is only about 30 percent of its total capacity.
Landowners have been wide open to wind projects. All it takes is some open space and a lease agreement with a wind farm company.
Testimony in the Abilene lawsuit showed that ranchers who leased their land reaped about $12,000 per turbine per year.
Most wind projects get federal and state tax breaks; a federal tax subsidy on production runs through 2008. In addition, Texas wind farms are receiving local school tax breaks totaling about $25 million a year, according to figures from the state comptroller.
Hunt, the King Ranch CEO, said wind turbines are sprouting across Texas without examination of their impact on the environment or nearby property owners.
“No one is looking at the longer-term impact and the value of the entire area” where turbines are placed, Hunt said.
The King Ranch may soon have two wind projects in the neighborhood. The larger one, 267 turbines, is planned by utility giant Scottish Power PLC.
Australian investment firm Babcock & Brown plans to build 157 turbines elsewhere in the county.
Hunt said the project should go through a permitting process to gauge the effect on water fowl and to find out if the noise of the turbines will disturb wildlife or people.
“Nobody knows the impact of any of this,” Hunt said. “If I were the steward of a big piece of ground – and I am – I’d be worried what happens 25 or 30 years down the line.”
Hunt acknowledges that the ranch opposes the wind project in part because it could cut into revenue from hunting and other recreational tourism activities.
The Kenedy Memorial Foundation, a charity that controls part of Kenedy Ranch, has leased land to Scottish Power and has said the revenue will flow into the foundation and a related charity, the John G. Kenedy Charitable Trust. Both are major contributors to Catholic charities.
Hunt and other opponents are in an uphill fight.
FPL Group, a Juno Beach, Fla.-based utility, won the Abilene case. At the time, FPL officials said the 11-1 verdict should send a message to other landowners thinking of suing.
Jurors could consider only whether turbine noise interfered with landowners’ enjoyment of their property.
Dale Rankin, one of the Abilene plaintiffs who owns a ranch and a chemical company in nearby Tuscola, said he’s about one mile away from a stretch of hundreds of turbines. He compares it to living “next to an airport where the jets are running their engines all the time.”
Rankin said he understands the state’s tradition of protecting landowners’ rights.
“But never in the history of the world have we put up 400-foot-tall blinking behemoths everywhere,” he said.
Steve Thompson, the Houston attorney for the Abilene-area landowners, has two similar cases pending in North Texas, one in Jack County and one in Cooke County.
Thompson said chances for success are greater if the judges in those cases allow a broader range of claims to be heard. He said the appeal of the Abilene case is in part based on the judge’s refusal to allow the turbines to be considered a visual nuisance.
“We think he’s dead wrong on that,” Thompson said.
Patterson said the idea of siting requirements for wind turbines “is not completely outside the realm of good public policy” and is worth studying.
“But this bill isn’t about being reasonable,” he said.
By Robert Elder
28 March 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding