PAWHUSKA – Fifteen minutes west of town, where partly wooded hills give way to open prairie, Osage County’s first wind farm reached a milestone Monday as three giant blades – each as big as the wings on a jetliner – rose into place, completing the first turbine.
Ford Drummond, a third-generation rancher, watched from a distance and felt sick to his stomach.
“Driving west on 60,” he said, referring to U.S. 60 between Pawhuska and Ponca City, “has always been one of my favorite drives, where the landscape just opens up. It’s going to be marred for a generation now.”
Even as construction seems to be accelerating, nearly 100 people met in a downtown theater Monday night to keep fighting wind development in Osage County, which has some of the last virgin tallgrass prairie on earth.
The county has two active wind farm developments, one under construction and one that recently won a court order to allow construction to begin. Both are owned by Italian utility giant Enel, which has reportedly invested $225 million in the effort.
The Osage Wind project will include 94 turbines across more than 8,000 acres west of Pawhuska, with the Mustang Run project planning to add another 64 turbines on adjacent properties.
Long opposed to both developments, the Osage Nation recently raised a new challenge to Osage Wind, claiming that it is violating the tribe’s mineral rights by removing and crushing rock to build foundations for the 400-foot turbine towers.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has told the wind farm developers to seek a permit from the tribe, but construction continues as the developers say no such permit is required.
In fact, construction has sped up, said Wilson Pipestem, an attorney for the Osage Nation.
“They’re trying to create inevitability,” Pipestem said. “They’re trying to finish it before anybody can stop them.”
Meanwhile, the second development, Mustang Run, filed a lawsuit earlier this year after the county Board of Adjustment refused to grant a permit for it. Last week, a district court judge ruled in favor of the turbines, ordering the county to grant the permit after all.
The board has not yet decided how to respond to the ruling, according to its attorney Monday. But the Osage Nation will continue to press its case in court, Pipestem said.
“This fight is far from over,” he told Monday’s audience. “There are a lot of things going on to try to stop this. We won’t give up.”
The wind developments sit on the southern edge of an area known as the Flint Hills, extending north into Kansas and marking the largest patch of unploughed tallgrass left in North America, said Bob Hamilton, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska.
The 400-foot wind turbines, along with access roads and transmission lines, amount to large-scale industrial developments on endangered habitat, he said.
“It’s inappropriate to call that project green,” he said. “Not in that location.”
More than 1,700 turbines have been built across Oklahoma since the early 2000s, producing nearly 15 percent of the state’s electricity, according to a presentation by Richard Mosier, a member of the Claremore Public School Board who represented the Oklahoma Property Rights Association at Monday’s meeting.
Other planned developments could nearly double the number of turbines over the next few years, he said. But the rapid expansion of the wind industry is being driven by generous tax subsidies, adding up to more than $100 million a year in Oklahoma, he said. Local schools often expect to benefit from wind developments, he said, but the tax breaks offset any contributions from the developers.
“It a blank check,” Mosier said, “that we can’t afford.”
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