A wind farm is to be built near a nature preserve despite Osage Indian protests
Guest post by Dale R. McIntyre
A big-city corporation rams through industrial development on a pristine landscape against the wishes of the local Native Americans, who fear their burial grounds and traditional use of the land will be impaired. Sound familiar?
There are twists, however, and irony enough to make it a “three-pipe problem”.
The corporation is Wind Capital Group LLC, of St. Louis, building a wind farm west of Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
The Native Americans are the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, and the traditional land use they see threatened is oil and gas drilling.
On Thursday, Dec. 15th, 2011, Wind Capital Group won a ruling from US district judge Gregory Frizzel that the wind farm could proceed despite the protests of the Osages.
Wind Capital wants to rush construction of the wind farm to qualify for a 2.2 cent/kW-hr federal tax subsidy, loss of which would “jeopardize the very existence of the wind facility.” (Tulsa World, Dec. 16th, 2011, p. 1)
Osage Nation Principal Chief John Red Eagle has stated that”…the target area for wind development would intrude upon sacred Osage burial sites, posing a major threat to the tribe’s culture.”(Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Dec. 16th, 2011,, p.1)
The eastern edge of the proposed wind farm site is about 3 miles from the boundary of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, home to 2500 bison on one of the last remnants of pristine tallgrass prairie left on the continent. To the east, Bluestem Lake hosts Canadian geese, pelicans, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons. Bald eagles winter over at Kaw Lake to the west.
I own land, fish, hunt and[ ramble] in the area so I know it as a majestic rolling grassland. In spring the Indian Paint Brushes, the red clover, bluebonnets and a dozen varieties of sunflower paint the landscape in a riot of color bold enough to delight Chagall. Deer and puma, wild turkey and coyotes play deadly games of hide and seek in the thick groves of cottonwood, cedar and blackjack oak along the creek beds.
The sight and sound of large wind turbines grates the nerves in such a place, as does their grisly record of killing birds. But the Osage Nation has another very pragmatic objection; they fear the wind farm will interfere with their oil and gas drilling.
In 1906, the Osage Nation took control of all mineral rights in the 1.5 million acre Osage Indian Reservation, now Oklahoma’s Osage County. Since then, surface rights pass by sale from owner to owner, but the mineral rights stay with the Osage tribe.
Thus for over 100 years, oil and gas have been critical to the economy of Osage County. The royalties are shared out among tribal members every year, and make a welcome addition to hardscrabble incomes from ranching and farming. “Big Oil” has no presence in Osage County. Small local companies produce the wells and many very welcome local jobs. Osage County wells are small “stripper wells”, pumped by nodding “pump jacks”. They typically make 2 to 10 barrels of crude per day.
(Larger firms may join in future as more complicated horizontal wells are drilled to exploit the “shale gas revolution.”)
Chief Red Eagle insisted in court that the wind farm would impair this vital tribal revenue stream by intefering with access to key drilling sites.
Wind Capital Croup brought experts to court who testified that the inconvenience to oil and gas drillers would be small. The judge agreed.
Wind Capital Group spokesmen say they are eager to work with the Osage Nation. They point out that the wind farm will create jobs (Construction will require 150-200 workers, but the construction contractor, RMT Inc., is from out of state. Permanent jobs are estimated as “12-15”. The believe property taxes on the wind farm will be a windfall to the tiny nearby rural school district of Shidler.
Tales with devilish villains and saintly heroes are for movies. Wind Capital Group is playing by the rules, and building on private land, whose owners have the right to exploit their property for lawful gain. The Osage Nation is not a collection of beggarly blanket Indians. They are well-represented, well-connected politically, with a shrewd sense of their rights and a determination to assert them. On January 24th, 2012, Chief Red Eagle announced a formal appeal of Judge Frizzell’s ruling (Lucinda Bray, Pawhuska Journal-Capital, Jan 25th, 2012)
As for those burial grounds, well, they are not so sensitive that oil and gas drilling disturbs them.
But all who dream of low-carbon energy should recognize that wind farms will intrude on huge areas considering the small amount of intermittent power they produce. The areas thus intruded upon are not sterile desert or blighted brownfield urban sites. The Osage County Wind Project is cheek-by-jowl with one of the most idyllic nature preserves in mid-continental America. Another wind farm, near Woodward, Oklahoma, is a prime suspect in the disappearance of the bats from neary Alabaster Caverns.
Since these wind farms do not proceed at all in the absence of whacking great federal subsidies, wind farm projects seem to be creating a new special interest group, with its own lobbyists, its own pet legislators, and its own corporate sponsors determined to preserve a very high rate of return on capital.
Call it “Big Wind”.
Meanwhile, the bison in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve will just have to learn to graze, fight, breed and give birth to the high-pitched whine and stroboscopic “swish” of the turbines.
As for the birds, the geese, the pelicans, the eagles and those graceful, soaring hawks making their “lazy circles in the sky”, well, they’ll just have to watch where they’re going. Inattention will get them chopped into coyote sashimi by the turbine blades.