At a legislative hearing Tuesday that began with a congressman’s dire warnings, state lawmakers debated whether further regulation of wind turbines is necessary to prevent interference with military air space.
The House Transportation Committee spent five hours listening to military officials concerned about turbines, wind energy experts who see no need for further regulation, and agricultural groups worried about their private property rights.
The hearing began with recorded testimony from U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, who said the construction of wind turbines near Oklahoma’s military bases could make those bases vulnerable to closure. He accused wind companies of refusing to consider the ramifications of their development.
“This is not a property rights issue. This is a national security issue,” Russell said.
Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, the senior ranking military member in Oklahoma, said airmen have been placed in “an unenviable situation” of avoiding wind turbines during their training flights.
“It is worrisome. We basically manage around the current encroachment,” Levy said.
Russell said language in the latest National Defense Authorization Act in Congress will address the issue in six to nine months. He called on the state to act in the interim period to ensure training missions are not further curtailed.
The committee, however, was unsure of whether it should do so. Some states have placed moratoriums on turbine construction near bases or issued fewer permits.
“We’re here not to fix a problem but maybe to head one off,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Vaughan, a Ponca City Republican.
Rep. John Enns, a Republican who represents the area around Vance Air Force Base, said, “We do need legislation in the state of Oklahoma until the federal government can get something done.”
Are more layers needed?
Since 2011, the Department of Defense’s Siting Clearinghouse has reviewed all renewable energy projects near military bases to ensure wind and solar infrastructure does not interfere with training operations. The question before the committee Tuesday was whether that federal process is sufficient or if an additional layer of law is needed.
“Do we need additional regulations and laws? No,” said Tom Buchanan, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. An Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association executive agreed.
Wind energy groups took issue with Russell’s accusation that they have resisted compromise and conversation. They told lawmakers there is no need for legislation but they are willing to work further with the state and military to ensure wind turbines do not harm training objectives.
“We have never left the table. We’ve been willing to have that conversation,” said Jeff Clark, president of the Wind Coalition.
Dave Belote, a wind energy consultant who previously oversaw the DOD’s clearinghouse, argued the federal process provides sufficient oversight of wind turbines near bases. He said wealthy anti-wind groups have “wrapped themselves in the flag” to frame their agenda as pro-military and patriotic.
“The one thing I would argue against is trying to create yet another layer of permitting,” he said. “The more you can avoid adding on layers – all that does is add costs to government, it adds costs to the industry, it delays things for the farmers and ranchers.”
Rep. Charles Ortega, a Republican who represents the area around Altus Air Force Base, doubted whether, in the absence of further regulations, wind companies would willingly work with the military to ensure training routes are not affected by turbines. Current problems with turbines are evidence, he said, that the federal permitting process is insufficient.
Belote, who represents three wind companies, said his clients are voluntarily reconsidering projects near bases and will continue to do so. He questioned whether Air Force pilots are well-served by airspace entirely devoid of obstacles.
“One key thing that a lot of folks who believe in realistic training will highlight: don’t create a pristine environment. There are between 30,000 and 50,000 turbines within 30 miles of the Taiwan Strait,” he said. “If that’s an area we’re likely to be flying and fighting in, we want to have seen what spinning wind turbines look like on a radar screen in a safe training environment before we get there and the Chinese are shooting at us.”