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Texas at Vortex of Wind Power Debate

BY JOE NICK PATOSKI El Capitan stands as a stone sentinel, a jagged limestone monolith that buttresses the southern flank of the tallest mountain range in Texas. It is imperious and daunting, the most visible landmark for hundreds of miles.

BY JOE NICK PATOSKI

El Capitan stands as a stone sentinel, a jagged limestone monolith that buttresses the southern flank of the tallest mountain range in Texas. It is imperious and daunting, the most visible landmark for hundreds of miles. Except, that is, from where I’m standing. Here, on a remote ranch in the Delaware Mountains, the huge massif is obscured by a cluster of Zond wind turbines, 38 of them, each about 200 feet high.

“The neighbors called me when they threw a party celebrating them going up,” Jim Daccus tells me as we eye the swirling steel blades. Daccus is the foreman at the Pezuña del Caballo, a swath of the Chihuahua Desert he tends all by his lonesome. “I told them, ‘I don’t feel like it’s a reason to celebrate.’ ”

Daccus has lost an important intangible, one cherished by landowners from coast to coast: an unobstructed view. He quietly explains that this monstrous eyesore is particularly obnoxious when its blinking red lights and flashing white strobes ruin the starry nights. “I’m just one old cowboy,” he says wistfully. “I don’t count.”

That was seven years ago. Since then, the number of landowners who “don’t count” nationwide and in particular in Texas has grown exponentially. Abilene now touts itself as the wind energy capital of the world, thanks to the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, a collection of 421 wind turbines 20 miles southwest of the city. In 2006, the Lone Star State surpassed California to become the nation’s leading source of wind power, with the latest reports putting Texas’ production capacity at 3,352 megawatts—that’s enough to light up more than 800,000 homes. A growing cadre of players in the energy field see wind as the next big play, and no place is better positioned to profit than Texas, where generous tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives sweeten the pot. Best of all, wind farms are a non-polluting, renewable energy source with zero carbon emissions.

Yet wind power has attracted an impressive array of critics. Scientists question wind power’s efficiency as a consistent power source. Number crunchers point out that without subsidies, wind power is a prohibitive energy source. Biologists, birders, and hunters cite the deadly effect of these huge turbines on migrating and permanent populations of birds and bats as well as the destruction of crucial habitat in order to service the elaborate infrastructure.

The technology is so new, and the pressure to create clean energy so intense, there has been little regulatory oversight of the industry nationally, and organizations traditionally thought to oppose such habitat degeneration, such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, have voiced their support for wind energy. Some states do have land use requirements that apply to wind facilities, but no federal or state laws specifically protect the property rights of landowners adjacent to wind farms. Wind farms have been responsible for significant raptor kills in California and bat kills on ridges in West Virginia. In Massachusetts, local opposition to the Nantucket Sound project has thus far failed to derail plans for an offshore wind farm near the Cape Cod National Seashore.

In Texas, not surprisingly, it is appropriate that the most contentious pissing match pits two storied ranching traditions against each other. On one side of the barbed wire fence stands the 850,000-acre King Ranch, established by Richard King in 1853 (and currently ranked as No. 5 on The Land Report 100). On the other side, the 400,000-acre Kenedy Ranch, founded by King’s mentor and business partner, Mifflin Kenedy. Both King and Kenedy were larger-than-life characters, steamboat captains who established sprawling ranching empires in the Wild Horse Desert. Each played critical roles in birthing the modern cattle industry and creating the modern American cowboy, borrowing heavily from the customs of the Mexican vaqueros who lived and worked on their ranches.

Many changes occurred on both ranches after the deaths of their respective patriarchs. Oil and gas augmented cattle as a revenue stream. A lengthy highway eventually bisected the Wild Horse Desert. The way the ranches were owned and run changed too. The King Ranch became a corporation, one whose stockholders were limited to a group of descendants of one of King’s daughters. The Kenedy line died out, and the ranch was bequeathed to two foundations, the Kenedy Memorial Foundation and the Kenedy Charitable Trust, both with ties to the Catholic Church. Still, the King and the Kenedy, tethered by their shared deep roots, enjoyed friendly relations. Until recently, that is.

The bond began unraveling after the two Kenedy Ranch foundations signed agreements with the Australian investment firm Babcock & Brown and PPM Energy, a subsidiary of the Spanish power company Iberdrola, to build two wind farms on the ranch. The projects, $800 million and $400 million respectively, called for more than 240 60-ton turbines reaching 400 feet high on as many as 30,000 acres of the Kenedy Ranch, including about 10 miles of coastline facing the Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. If built, the turbines would provide clean, renewable power to 180,000 homes, according to the promoters. The two foundations would benefit to the tune of $3,000 to $5,000 per year per turbine, a substantial windfall for the South Texas charities. Who could argue with that?

Jack Hunt, that’s who. The CEO of King Ranch Inc., Hunt sees the Kenedy Ranch lease as having a direct impact on King Ranch. “Our revenue from wildlife, particularly hunting, is comparable to our cattle business, and these wind machines directly threaten both businesses,” Hunt says. Although Hunt comes across as a tree hugger, he is a conscientious businessman. Both ranches are located in an untamed, lightly populated swath of coastal plains whose biodiversity is considered as rich and complex as Florida’s Everglades. That biodiversity is why King Ranch is world renowned as a hunting destination favored by presidents, foreign dignitaries, and CEOs, and it brings in five times as much per acre as cattle raising does, Hunt says. Rows of giant wind turbines as tall as 30 stories will devalue the wild experience that allows King Ranch to command a premium for hunting access, he contends.

Hunt’s complaint focuses on the site of the wind farms: near Baffin Bay overlooking the Laguna Madre and Padre Island National Seashore, the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world. Putting wind turbines on the bay is just plain wrong, he says. The lagoon is a fragile ecosystem, one of the only hypersaline bays in the world. More than 350 resident breeding and migrating species of birds use the Central Flyway and depend on the lagoon’s habitat during migrations.

“This area is full of wetlands, endangered species, threatened species, migrating birds, and overwintering birds. Eighty percent of the continent’s redhead duck population winters here,” Hunt points out. “We recognize the value of wildlife. The people running the Kenedy are taking a short view of the value of their land. Once you put those machines in there, the value of the land for any other purpose is as good as gone.”

Hunt is astonished that such large-scale commercial development has virtually no oversight. “There’s no other industrial use in this state that has no permitting process,” he says. In a state as big as Texas, you’d think the opinion of the head honcho of the largest ranch would carry some weight. You’d be wrong. Hunt unsuccessfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to create some kind of official oversight of wind farms.

“We’re convinced the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and we’re a charity organization, so there’s a human dimension that hasn’t been brought into all this,” Gen. Marc Cisneros of the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation told The Associated Press. Cisneros had a valuable ally in Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, an unabashed booster of unregulated wind farms as well as an advocate of oil and gas drilling on Padre Island National Seashore and mining groundwater on state lands in arid West Texas. Patterson pooh-poohed the objections to wind power, telling The Associated Press, “This is the King Ranch versus the rest of Texas.”

“This is a private property issue,” says Fred Bryant, director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Bryant is quick to acknowledge that the owners of the Kenedy Ranch can do whatever they please. “But to put a wind farm in the heart of bird and bat migration routes is almost unbelievable. The state of Texas has hardly talked about a permitting system for something that will have a major impact on the region’s economy.” Bryant cites South Texas as the most popular hunting destination for white-tailed deer and dove statewide. The region is also the epicenter of a growing birding and ecotourism economy that already has a statewide impact of almost $3 billion.

“The state is letting these people run wild,” Bryant complains. “There’s no oversight. I can’t add on to my garage without a permit. The wind generating companies have no conscience where they site them. They’d put one in the Everglades if they could. There are places to put wind turbines and places not to put them, and there’s not a worse place in North America to put one than here. We really don’t know what the impact could be. We need to study it extensively. Until that’s done, you’ve got a state that refuses to accept responsibility and energy companies that don’t have a conscience.” Whatever value wide-open spaces may have, the wind farms on the Kenedy will degrade it, Bryant predicts. “This shoreline and habitat haven’t changed since the Karankawa Indians were here, and those things are eyesores,” he says bluntly.

Studies elsewhere generally have concluded avian mortality from existing wind farms has been minimal, with an impact similar to radio, television, and cellular telephone towers and the guy wires that stabilize them. As many as 4,000 bat fatalities were estimated in a one-year period on a West Virginia wind farm built on a high, forested ridge. On a California wind farm, more than 1,000 raptors, including golden eagles and red-tailed hawks, are killed annually. But no data has been collected in a migratory flyway, among coastal and offshore populations of waterfowl, or about the effects on coastal mammals because no wind farms have been sited in such a region before. What is certain is turbines, their platforms, the roads needed to reach them, and the transmission lines to transfer the power will fragment the habitat with the potential to degrade or destroy it.

To perform a pre-construction environmental study, PPM hired Texas Environmental Studies and Analysis. The study noted that the risk of birds being struck by the turbines is low (because of the height of the propellers). Jim Sinclair, who oversaw the study, says, “The avian work undertaken at the Peñascal Project [the PPM wind farm on the Kenedy Ranch] exceeds any work done for a wind project to date in Texas. We have studied this site intensively for over two and a half years and are comfortable that the site is appropriate for wind development from an environmental perspective. Moreover, the project is self-contained on private land and will not interfere with or be visible from adjacent property owners.”

Cina Alexander Forgason, a stockholder in the King Ranch, begs to differ. “Our land is across Baffin Bay, and those towers will be 300 feet high,” she says. “Visibility is already an issue.” Her bigger complaint was the potential impact on hunting. “We have people paying good money for the entire experience of being in the wild. There’s a reason there’s not many hunting leases around Texas City [home to some of the largest refineries in Texas].”

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, along with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, has launched an extensive four-year peer-reviewed wildlife and migratory bird study in and around the region that will be completed in 2009, says Kathy Boydston, who is heading up the study at TPWD. In lieu of state regulations, she says, TPWD is working to bring together various stakeholders, including wind industry representatives, power companies, landowners, and birding and environmental organizations, to establish guidelines for a voluntary wind power certification program that will take into account appropriate and inappropriate sites for wind farms.

Location can make all the difference in the world. AES Wind Generation recently scuttled a proposed wind farm in the Texas Hill Country, citing concern over its impact on wildlife habitat, including bat colonies in the area; objections from landowners, real estate professionals, and tourism-related business owners also contributed to the company’s decision to pull out. Cost is another factor. The added cost of building offshore led Babcock & Brown to cancel plans for the largest offshore wind farm in the United States.

Both Kenedy Ranch wind farms appear to be done deals. The greatest threat was the 11th-hour formation of the Coastal Habitat Alliance—11 interest groups with a stake in protecting the globally important migratory flyway and coastal habit, including King Ranch Inc., the adjacent 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, the American Bird Conservancy, the Coastal Bend Audubon Society, and the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. The alliance requested the Public Utility Commission of Texas allow the organization to intervene in a permit hearing for a transmission line serving the Kenedy Ranch wind farms. (Unlike wind turbines, power lines are regulated and permitted by the state.) On September 28, the PUC agreed to hear the group’s appeal. The alliance’s attorney, Jim Blackburn of Houston, says that if the appeal is denied, the court of last resort may be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees coastal management plans nationwide. Each participating state must regulate energy production and its environmental impact (including bird mortality) within coastal zones under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. “These kind of issues are why I became an environmental attorney,” Blackburn says.

If his efforts fail, King Ranch, neighboring landowners, and other interested parties have no choice but to learn to love hundreds of 400-foot-tall wind turbines on the horizon near the Laguna Madre. As for the wildlife, they’ll either have to adjust, move, or perish. Like that old cowboy in West Texas, the only thing one can do is hope for better neighbors.

Joe Nick Patoski has written three coffee table books about his home state: Texas Mountains, Texas Coast, and Big Bend National Park. His biography of Willie Nelson is due out in 2008.

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Posted in November 2007, Regional News, Southwest

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