As dozens of birders from across the country attend an Oklahoma festival intended to bring attention to the plight of dwindling prairie grouse populations, a difference in views on wind energy between the local Audubon Society and the Sierra Club has come into focus.
Via email to Oklahoma birders, John Kennington, longtime Tulsa Audubon Society Chapter president and an organizer of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival underway in Woodward and Pawhuska through Sunday, challenged the Sierra Club’s position presented recently in state electric utility upgrade hearings and on its Beyond Coal Campaign web site.
“If the proposal outlined (by the Sierra Club) is approved, we will see an exponential increase in the number of wind turbines across Oklahoma. The impact on lesser prairie chickens, eagles, other raptors, migratory birds and other wildlife, particularly bats, will be devastating,” Kennington wrote. “I really hate to see people who care about our environment disagree, but many of us feel this is a very misguided position.”
While he said he appreciates concerns about pollution and climate change, he argued that grasping with both hands for wind or solar technologies without pushing for mitigation of the negative aspects of those developments is not the answer, either.
Whitney Pearson, Beyond Coal organizing representative with the Sierra Club in Oklahoma City, said the differences may not be so broad as Kennington’s note indicates, but she said more communication between the groups on wind energy is needed.
“Our position wasn’t fully clear to them, I think,” Pearson said. “Clearly it is time we had a sit-down to talk about how we can work together.”
About 60 birders from across the country are at the Selman Ranch near Woodward this weekend to participate in birding tours and seminars, the highlights of which are watching lesser prairie chickens near Woodward, and greater prairie chickens on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, as they perform elaborate courtship displays on their breeding grounds.
As the festival began, Kennington said he had spoken with Whitney and was encouraged, given plans for more communications, but he still is cautious.
“I may slightly re-write my statement a little bit, but if you look at their website it’s pretty clear they are pushing hard for additional investment in wind energy as the key replacement for coal, and properly siting those developments and being careful about that feels like a minor consideration.”
The catalyst for the rift are statements submitted during recently concluded Oklahoma Corporation Commission hearings on Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co.’s plans to meet Environmental Protection Agency mandates and recover costs.
Opened March 3 and completed April 10, the hearings involved testimony from an additional 13 groups who filed to intervene in the process, said Kathleen O’Shea, OG&E spokeswoman.
Of $1 billion on the table, $700 million is planned for environmental compliance steps, including a natural-gas conversion at its Muskogee plant, installing scrubbers at the Sooner plant near Red Rock, and installing Low NOx (nitrogen oxide) burners at those plants and its Seminole plant at Konawa, she said.
The proposal adds fuel diversity and curbs emissions by adding natural gas, but attempts to keep costs down by continuing to use some coal with reduced emission technologies. It does not include wind, she said.
“It was not in the plan to put in wind in the near future because of transmission congestion,” O’Shea said. “Right now the infrastructure doesn’t exist to get it back to where we need it.”
However, she quickly added OG&E has wind of its own, purchases wind and in the near future is issuing a request for information on future wind potential.
“We want to know what’s out there, what might be available in the future, but with what we have in front of the commission right now, we could not include wind,” she said. The current plan must be implemented by 2019.
Whitney said the Sierra Club position is to upgrade to alternative energy now, rather than later.
“These technologies may be obsolete in the near future, and then you’re looking at even more upgrades, again, and passing those expenses on to consumers,” she said. Wildlife protection and proper placement of wind farms is part of the Sierra Club statement, she said.
Kennington said wildlife protection is not getting enough emphasis. “They may not be telling OG&E to replace solely with wind, but they emphasize ‘other cleaner technologies.’ ”
“And that’s all good, but what is there? Solar is not the answer and comes with it’s own issues. There are no more rivers to dam in this state. Nuclear? So, what is there but wind? We can’t put up tens of thousands of wind towers and hundreds of miles of transmission lines, and that’s what it would take.
“All kinds of development comes with issues for wildlife, our lands – and for landowners for future generations – we just can’t forget that in this whole process.”
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