OKLAHOMA CITY – As wind turbines crop up along designated military flight training routes, Oklahoma lawmakers met Tuesday to discuss whether they need to implement new laws to help protect the state’s multi-billion dollar aerospace industry.
Oklahoma’s wide-open rural skies and designated flight corridors have long been a major selling point for the Air Force, which operates three major bases in the state – Tinker in Midwest City, Vance in Enid and Altus in Altus. The Air Force uses the flight corridors to conduct low-altitude training exercises before sending planes to squadrons located around the world.
But in recent years, Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, commander of Air Force Sustainment Center, Air Force Materiel Command, Tinker, said wind turbines that rise hundreds of feet into the sky are encroaching upon the flight corridors. Some of those turbines are now in the paths of low-flying planes, requiring the Air Force to abandon routes or take other evasive action.
“Using those training routes, we certify (our) planes are ready for low-level (flights),” Levy told lawmakers during a hearing Tuesday at the state Capitol.
“It is worrisome,” he said. “We manage around the current encroachment.”
Currently, it’s up to the federal government to decide whether wind turbine construction could adversely affect the military, but state Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus, questioned whether state lawmakers need to implement stricter oversight.
Officials acknowledged the federal process could be improved.
Some states have taken the federal rules a step further by implementing their own regulations, said Jeffrey Clark, president of the Wind Coalition, which represents producers and landowners.
Texas officials, for instance, decided wind companies can’t use state incentives if they build within 25 miles of a military base, but even that restriction has generated controversy, Clark said. People are concerned that stipulation could deprive them of their property rights, he said.
Ortega said he coauthored a measure that would have updated the state’s permitting process, but “the bill met quite a bit of resistance” and didn’t advance in Oklahoma.
Clark said his industry attempts to avoid interfering with military access, but also wants to preserve individual property rights. Some rural Oklahoma landowners get hefty royalty checks in exchange for allowing wind companies to build on their lands.
“This is not a wind issue to us,” said Tom Buchanan, president of Oklahoma Farm Bureau. “This is a private property rights issue.”
Buchanan said Oklahomans have a right to do with their lands what the want as long as they don’t interfere with their neighbor. With federal policies in place to regulate new turbine construction, Buchanan said Oklahoma doesn’t need any additional regulations or laws.
“This is not a property rights issues. This is a national security issue,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma, of the 5th Congressional District.
In a pretaped message to lawmakers, Russell said he’s working on federal legislation to better regulate the issue, but said that’s still as far as nine months away from taking effect. He urged Oklahoma lawmakers to take action sooner. Once wind turbines are erected, there’s little chance of getting the military air space back.
Failure to act could leave Oklahoma vulnerable to losing its existing military bases, Russell said.
“We can’t stick them in military training areas, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” he said.
“Do you want Enid to become Burns Flat?” he asked.
Burns Flat was once a booming western Oklahoma town until the military closed Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base located there, he said.
Mike Cooper, city of Enid military liaison and chairman of Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, said in a phone interview the threat to all three of Oklahoma’s bases is imminent, if wind turbines continue to encroach on training routes.
“The reason we’ve been able to grow the mission at our bases in Oklahoma is because of the airspace and our ability to protect it,” Cooper said.
“At the end of the day,” Cooper said, “if you continue to degrade or take away from mission capability, in the future at some point you’re probably not going to be there.”
In spite of that dire outlook, Cooper said he’s confident Oklahoma’s military training airspace will be preserved because all the parties involved – including wind energy advocates – have come to agreement that turbines should not block the entrance or exit to training routes, runways, bombing ranges and drop zones and should not cross training routes.
“We all agree those are important things to protect,” Cooper said. “There wasn’t anyone there who disagrees on any of those points.”
More work will be needed to agree on language in any legislation, Cooper said, but he expects that will come to fruition because of consensus that the state can’t afford to lose the $19 billion annual economic impact of the three bases.
“I at least feel better in that the wind industry and everyone agrees what needs to be protected – it’s just a matter of agreeing on how we protect that,” Cooper said. “As always the devil’s in the details, but we’ll get there.”
Enid News & Eagle Staff Writer James Neal contributed to this story.