Osage Nation opposes proposed NE Oklahoma wind farms

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) June 2011

The Osage Nation opposes a plan to build wind farms near the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, saying it believes the wind farms would harm the ecosystem and hinder future efforts to extract oil or gas from the area.

In a statement posted on the tribe’s website, Osage Chief John Red Eagle said the Pawhuska-based tribe isn’t opposed to alternative energy development, but the tribe’s Minerals Council believes the sites being considered for development cover about 30,000 acres “and are located in prime area for future oil and gas recovery.”

He also said the projects would “have an adverse impact upon the overall ecosystem of the Tallgrass Prairie, a true national treasure.”

“The Osage Nation must join others in its protection, restoration, and properly make use of the limited opportunities the prairie provides everyone, including its wildlife,” he said.

Chris White, the Osage Nation’s director of governmental affairs, said the tribe is more concerned about the long-term environmental impact of wind turbines instead of what it believes would be the potential short-term impact of oil and gas drilling.

“Those oil derricks, there’s not many of them,” he said. “We don’t have 200 oil derricks that will be there for 50 years, like the wind turbines would. ... The drilling unit doesn’t stay there permanently and they’re not 200 or 300 feet tall.”

Red Eagle said he visited with representatives of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Osage County commissioners and a property owner who’s leasing his land to developers before the tribe decided to oppose the wind projects.

Wind Capital Group of St. Louis and TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., both have announced development projects in Osage County.

The 150-megawatt TradeWind project would be located about 13 miles west of Pawhuska, and, according to the company’s website, “is expected to have no material effect on any threatened or endangered species of birds or animals, based on third party studies” commissioned by the company.

Aaron Weigel, director of project development for TradeWind Energy, said the development of wind energy and oil can and do co-exist successfully in other parts of the state.

“Environmental concerns are paramount to TradeWind development, with decisions about overall impacts being made once sufficient field studies have been completed,” Weigel said.

The Wind Capital project also would be 150 megawatts and be located west of Pawhuska, about 55 miles northwest of Tulsa.

Jan Christian Andersen, a spokesman for Wind Capital Group, said the company is disappointed the Osage Nation won’t support the project.

“We still strongly believe this project represents great benefit to the local community, Oklahoma and the nation,” Andersen said in a statement. “We believe this project can be constructed and operated with no negative impact on oil and gas operations while protecting the natural environment of the surrounding area.”

Wind energy projects have been in vogue in recent years in Oklahoma, although most have been built in the western half of the state. In April, Osage County commissioners approved a wind energy ordinance and said the companies had the right to build the wind farms.

Conservationists have opposed the Osage County projects, saying the wind turbines will obstruct views in one of the last sections of tallgrass prairie left in the U.S. and could adversely affect breeding grounds for prairie chickens.

“Our position has always been at the Nature Conservancy that we’re highly supportive of any kind of alternative energy development, as long as it’s sited carefully,” said Bob Hamilton, the director of the 40,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. “Location, location, location – it’s a real estate issue. Green energy ... should be aware of and try to avoid disturbing sensitive habitats.”

Last month, Brownback made 11,000 square miles of the Flint Hills in Kansas – another section of tallgrass prairie – off-limits to wind farm expansion, more than doubling the off-limits area established by former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2005.

Red Eagle said the tribe is hopeful those who disagree with it respect its decision.

“Our county commissioners need revenue enhancement to effectively serve the citizens, just as the land owners see a financial opportunity for themselves,” Red Eagle said. “However, I believe there are other financial opportunities that can be explored and alternatives found for the land owners as well, such as conservation easements.”