After a century and a half as cordial neighbors, two of the nation’s biggest ranches find themselves feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys over wind energy and wildlife and whether the two can coexist.
The storied King and Kenedy ranches, which together cover nearly 1.3 million acres in sparsely populated south Texas, are at odds over plans to erect 240-plus wind-powered turbines on the smaller Kenedy property. The structures and their massive blades can stand 400 feet tall – taller than most 30-story buildings.
The King Ranch, with 825,000 acres near the Texas Gulf Coast, says the turbines will interfere with migratory birds’ flight patterns, threaten other wildlife and create an eyesore – though the nearest highway is nearly 20 miles away.
Managers of the charitable trust and foundation that oversee the Kenedy Ranch – a mere 400,000 acres – are resisting a public brawl, but the companies leasing their land for the wind farms say the King Ranch essentially ought to mind its own business. Besides, they say, they’ve spent two years studying migratory birds’ flight patterns and are convinced the environmental impact will be minimal.
Already, Texas leads the nation in wind-generated power, and numerous proposed projects are under way. But none have garnered attention like the Kenedy wind farms – in part because of the King vs. Kenedy skirmish.
Wind farms generate electricity by using wind to turn giant blades that rotate on turbines, an alternative to power created by utilities using coal, natural gas and other sources.
King Ranch President Jack Hunt has called for state legislation to regulate the farms – the lack of such laws governing wind farms making Texas a favorite spot for potential wind projects. He’s written newspaper opinion pieces and spoken to the media about what he sees as the dangers of the projects.
Hunt said he met with Kenedy Ranch overseers when the wind farms were first proposed a couple of years ago, hoping to get them to understand they’re “sacrificing the long-term value of a rare resource for short-term revenue.”
“But it sort of fell on deaf ears,” he said.
Marc Cisneros, who runs the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation from nearby Corpus Christi, has declined to shout back. But he said the project on his section of the ranch not only is environmentally sound but will allow the foundation’s charitable work to continue in an impoverished part of the state.
“It’s kind of like the Hatfields and McCoys going on here, and it’s really unfortunate,” said John Calaway, chief development officer for Babcock & Brown Ltd., an Australian outfit that plans to spend up to $800 million to build 157 turbines on a lease secured from the foundation.
“The King Ranch has (nearly) a million acres, and if they think it’s the right thing to do to have nothing developed, that’s fine,” he said. “But for them to infringe on the property rights of the Kenedy Ranch, which has been incredibly thoughtful about all this, is an outrage. It’s so unneighborly, it’s incredible.”
Led largely by Texas, the United States grew its wind-power capacity faster than anyone in the world in 2005 and 2006, and wind farms now operate in 36 states. A recent study for Congress by the National Research Council said wind farms could generate up to 7 percent of the nation’s electricity in 15 years – up from less than 1 percent today. That report also said more study was needed on the effect wind farms have on birds and bats.
With no permitting required, plentiful open spaces and the chance of landing a U.S. Department of Energy blade-testing facility, “Texas is uniquely positioned to lead the nation in wind power,” said state land commissioner Jerry Patterson, a wind farm proponent who’s bickered publicly with Hunt on the issue.
Besides the skyline of turbines endangering birds, Hunt bristles the most at the lack of regulation of the turbine-laden farms. Developers need neither state nor federal approval to erect the towers on private land. Hunt supported state legislation to require permitting for such sites, but it failed. Congress also considered such requirements, but nothing materialized.
“I don’t think (government) agencies are doing their jobs,” Hunt said from his Houston office. “These are not farms. They’re industrial sites.”
The feud might have Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, the ranches’ founders, spinning in their graves. In the mid-19th century, the two men each operated steamboats in Florida before migrating to Texas and making fortunes moving goods and people along the Rio Grande. They bought land in tandem and owned a steamboat line. Today, the Kenedy Ranch is sandwiched between King’s holdings.
“They were very close – business partners, lifelong friends,” said Homero Vera, who runs the Kenedy Ranch Museum in Sarita. “Mifflin was with King when he died in San Antonio.”
Today, King Ranch’s vast privately held portfolio includes ranching and farming operations, oil and gas royalties and hunting leases, as well as retail operations that include furniture and high-priced leather goods.
The disagreement lingers even as Babcock & Brown and PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., prepare the sites for the turbines, which they both hope to have spinning sometime next year. PPM’s initial phase calls for 84 turbines on about 15,000 acres owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust – a $400 million investment that’s expected to generate 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 average-size homes.
PPM spokesman Jan Johnson said the company, part of Spanish power utility Iberdrola, has worked diligently to make sure the turbines will have as little effect on the area as possible. She said it already scaled back the number of turbines nearer the coastline in part to protect some birds’ flight patterns.
Jim Sinclair, the local biologist who studied the birds for PPM, said he’s been surprised at the relatively small number of birds he’s seen near the wind farm site. The area’s hundreds of varieties include mourning doves, long-billed curlews, hawks, orioles and redhead ducks. In general, Sinclair said, many of the birds stick close to the water and large clusters of oak trees, and the turbines are far enough away not to pose too much of a threat – information PPM says it’s shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.
“We simply haven’t seen a lot of them in the rotor-swept areas,” Sinclair said.
Cisneros said he and his board of directors were satisfied the project posed little threat to the environment. The foundation donated $11.5 million to charities in 2006, primarily causes in south Texas associated with the Catholic Church.
“We’re convinced the benefits outweigh the disadvantages,” Cisneros said. “And we’re a charity organization, so there’s a human dimension that hasn’t been brought into all this.”
Those arguments have done little to appease Hunt, who said he still hopes to work with lawmakers to make wind farms more accountable. He points to the federal tax credits that wind farms receive as only one of the reasons for more oversight.
“This area is often called ‘the last great wilderness,'” Hunt said. “Nobody really understands the impact these turbines will have on an area that’s so biologically diverse. It’s a horrific location.”
By John Porretto
23 June 2007