Oklahoma Oil and Gas Regulator Wrestles With Oversight of Wind Industry
Corporation Commission meetings are usually pretty dull, but the Sept. 11 technical conference on wind energy was standing room only. It was lively — and theatrical.
When Tammy Huffstutlar of Calumet took her turn at the microphone, she cued up recordings of whirring wind turbines to accompany her testimony.
“I don’t know if you can hear this or not, but this is my life,” she told Corporation Commissioners Dana Murphy and Bob Anthony, who presided over the meeting. “That’s why I’m here talking about property rights and regulation.”
Huffstutlar and her husband live near Calumet in Canadian County. The couple purchased the farm more than 35 years ago. In 2012, Apex Energy’s Canadian Hills Wind farm started operating, and the Huffstutlars were surrounded by 11 turbines placed on neighboring land.
The couple has been outspoken about the nuisance of living with that whirring sound and flickering shadow of the spinning blades. Tammy says the turbines decreased their property value have aggravated her husband’s heart condition.
Oklahoma was the country’s fourth-largest wind power producer last year, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency show. Wind farms are common in the panhandle and western parts of the state, but projects are expanding into northeastern Oklahoma, including areas that have never hosted fields filled with turbines, like Osage and Craig counties, where some landowners have mounted vocal resistance.
“We’ve invested $6 billion dollars in the state of Oklahoma, communities are begging us to come to town,” Jeff Clark of the Austin-based Wind Coalition said at the meeting. “Many farmers and ranchers in the state of Oklahoma are struggling to stay on their land. Wind for them represents a huge opportunity.”
So far, opponents have had little success fighting projects at the city and county level, and the industry’s growth has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
Like the Huffstutlars, Jody Harlan also lives in Canadian County — but she’s fine with the turbines.
“It’s a non-polluting, green source of energy,” she said. “We really ought to regulate the energy that’s toxic and dangerous to us, not the one that some people just don’t like to look at.”
The wind energy issues currently up for discussion in Oklahoma fall into three categories: siting, notification and decommissioning: where should turbines go, who should know if they’re coming and when, and how should they be dismantled.
Siting is one of the most contentious issues.
“To have wind turbines in close proximity to residential housing is not an appropriate and responsible land use,” Warren Thomas, who owns a farm that straddles both Cleveland and McClain counties said at the meeting. “Those are incompatible.”
Thomas and other residents would like the state to establish setback rules — rules that would set minimum distances between turbines and houses. Cities and counties can set those kinds of rules with zoning restrictions, but statewide setback regulations might prove too intrusive for a low-regulation state like Oklahoma, where officials generally don’t like interfering with the energy business.
“People keep thinking we do all these things with oil and gas, and we should regulate like oil and gas,” Commissioner Murphy told attendees. “I just hope people understand … there’s no law or rule that says how far away that says how far an oil and gas well has to be from a house or a building.”
At this point, the meetings are at the “inquiry” level. The Corporation Commission is hosting two more wind-energy meetings this year. A second technical conference is scheduled for Oct. 15; a final hearing will be held in early-December. No formal wind energy rules have been proposed, and it’s possible that the meetings won’t result in any new framework for industry oversight.
There’s also a political component to the wind energy meetings. The Corporation Commission’s inquiry was launched at the request of Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, who authored Senate Bill 1440, a shelved measure that would have placed a temporary moratorium on new wind projects in northeastern Oklahoma.
Currently, the Corporation Commission doesn’t have the authority to create rules or regulations addressing many of the issues being raised, says agency spokesman Matt Skinner.
The commission can’t approve new wind rules — which would still have to be vetted through the standard rulemaking process — until the Oklahoma Legislature grants it the specific authority to do so.