Mike Brake | September 24, 2018
Oklahoma wind farms encroaching on military flight paths
Wind farms have caused considerable controversy in Oklahoma in recent years. First came the generous tax breaks and other credits that subsidized their construction, at major cost to the state budget. Then came the “not in my backyard” sentiments of many residents who found them unsightly and noisy. Environmentalists even lobbied against them when it was found that they often killed birds.
Now state officials, prompted by Oklahoma Fifth District Congressman Steve Russell, have weighed in on a new issue: some wind farms are being built in low-level military test and training flight paths, apparently in violation of a new state law.
Oklahoma state legislators responded to Russell’s warnings last spring when they passed a new law that requires future wind farm installations to be given a “no hazard” certification by the FAA and/or undergo mitigation inspections in conjunction with military authorities.
“We have to make sure that companies that are subsidized by U. S. tax dollars are not putting service men and women in jeopardy.” –Congressman Steve Russell
House Bill 3561 was authored by Rep. Charles Ortega (R-Altus), Rep. Casey Murdock (R-Felt), Rep. David Perryman (D-Chickasha), Rep. John Pfeiffer (R-Orlando), and Rep. Lewis Moore (R-Edmond). Senate authors were Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz (R-Altus) and Sen. Roland Pederson (R-Burlington). It was signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin on April 3, 2018.
The law is important because the same parts of Oklahoma that are most attractive to wind farm developers have long been used by the military for extensive flying training and testing, often at low altitudes. Vance Air Force Base in Enid is a primary flight training center. Altus Air Force Base has long been a center for training cargo and airlift flight crews. Aircraft undergoing repairs at Tinker are test-flown along similar pathways, and pilots being trained at Shepard Air Force Base in Texas use Oklahoma training routes as well.
When a cluster of wind turbines is erected along one of those military flight paths, it can render them unsafe and useless for low-level flight, Russell says.
“We’ve got to put a stop to it,” Congressman Russell said. He has noted that not only do the wind turbines endanger flight crews, they could even render some of those bases unusable, forcing their closure if the military decides to move the training and test functions to another state.
The new state law apparently has had minimal effect on at least one wind farm developer, NextEra Energy, which has moved ahead with the construction of two wind farms in Canadian County near Hinton.
According to media reports in early September, Mike Cooper of the state Strategic Military Planning Commission and Victor Bird of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission wrote to NextEra demanding that they cease and desist from the completion of the wind farms until required approvals have been filed with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which handles wind farm regulations.
The law requiring such approval became effective on May 2, well before the work began on the wind farms in question. NextEra has apparently filed for current FAA approval but that had not yet been granted, and the Corporation Commission has the authority to levy “millions of dollars in fines,” according to a letter from the Attorney General.
The Commission heard testimony on September 18 about the NextEra project and noted that the company had filed for FAA approval in 2016, but that it has changed the location and height of many of the turbines since then.
Russell noted that the revised plans have not won FAA approval.
“This is wrong,” he said, noting that he plans to lead a congressional committee in looking into wind farm encroachment on military flight paths not only in Oklahoma and Texas, but in several other states as well.
“We have to make sure that companies that are subsidized by U. S. tax dollars are not putting service men and women in jeopardy,” he said.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.