Osage Nation fights wind power initiate to the dissaproval of county residents
By Hallie Sacks
WASHINGTON—As Osage member Chris White begins an hour-long drive to Tulsa, he looks across the flat prairie at a plot of land just north of U.S. 60. In the distance he sees the mid-morning sun highlighting the tall grass tips. It's a sight, he worries, whose days may be numbered.
His tribe, which won this land in buffalo wars and fought to regain it after government relocation, again finds itself in a custody battle. This time, however, the fight is over resources hidden below the surface.
Although non-native residents own property on the reservation, Osage members claim ownership over the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the land. And those reserves will, according to the Osage, be harmed by a proposed wind farm that many residents are eager to welcome to the county.
“The plans are on a small parcel of land but it is in the heart,” says White, the Osage Nation’s
executive director of governmental affairs. “This is going to have an adverse impact on the Osage Nation’s right to further development of minerals.”
The Wind Capital Group, whose project gained approval from landowners and the Osage County board in August, have plans to begin installing a 94-turbine wind farm in the prairie land before the year is done.
After months of speaking out against the wind farm, including threats of legal action from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Osage tribal nation filed a lawsuit against the Midwestern company in October. The trial is set to begin Dec.14.
This lawsuit deepens the rift between the tribe and the non-native residents of Osage County who argue tax revenue from the wind farm would be lucrative for local business and provide money for underfunded schools.
The proposed construction of 94 turbines is projected to bring more than $500,000 in revenue to the landowners in Osage County and could provide over $1 million per year to the state in property taxes. The construction and maintenance of the wind turbines would also increase local employment, according to Scott Greene, the principal investigator for the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative.
John Herzig, the superintendent to the Shidler Public Schools, says the wind farm would be a lucrative deal for the public schools and could take them off the $900,000 a year they receive in state aid.
“I’m disappointed in the tribe for fighting this development,” says Herzig. “We have a lot of Osage children enrolled in Shidler and this would provide opportunities for our kids.”
The Osage, however, are worried the wind project will also provide opportunities for other wind energy companies. TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., and Invenergy of Chicago have been “sniffing around” Osage County and their success will be dependent on the results of this trial, according to White.
Oklahoma-- “…where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” as the state song goes-- is prime territory for wind development. The state is eighth in the country for wind production, which mostly comes from turbines in western Oklahoma, according to Greene.
“There is a perception that it is windy in western Oklahoma but not in the east,” says Greene. “But there is potential is eastern Oklahoma as well. This project could show people that western Oklahoma is not the only option for wind energy and lead to expansion."
Though the increase of renewable energy would help the country lessen reliance on fossil fuel, some environmental groups are concerned about the effects the wind farm will have on the natural habitat of the region.
“We’ve done analysis where the most intact prairies are left and the wind farm is in the worst place it could be,” says Mike Fuhr, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy, “The wind farm will further fragment one of the most threatened habitat types in the world.”
According to new research from the Nature Conservancy, other areas in the state have higher wind potential and would be less damaging to natural ecosystems. Fuhr believes Wind Capital Group chose the location for reasons other than wind capability.
“There are large ranches in that area so it is simpler to put the farm where only three people have ownership over the land,” says Fuhr.
Dealing with three ranchers as opposed to a bundle of landowners is strategic for wind companies. According to Greene, a wind company pays the landowners $5,000 to $8,000 a year per turbine, which brings money into the county through tax revenue.
White says, however, the benefit to three ranchers does not override the Osage Nation’s rights to a primary source of income.
Osage territory has been one of the top fossil fuel production sites in the U.S. over the past 100 years, according to White. In 2010 the land produced 4.7 million barrels of oil and 13 million cubic feet of natural gas, providing $360 million to individuals with mineral ownership and approximately $3.3 million to the state in taxes.
Galen Crum, councilman on the Osage Mineral Council, believes the Osage have a strong case.
“The wind farm will greatly hurt our budget to develop our resources,” says Crum. “There is a lot of legal background that favors our claims.”
Oklahoma courts prove difficult on landowners or companies with plans that may interfere with mineral development. In the 1979 case Hinds v. Phillips Petroleum Co., the state court sided against the landowner who claimed Phillips was trespassing by building mineral pipes on his property. The courts upheld that mineral estates take dominance over surface estates.
The courts maintained this in 1997 when Enron Oil & Gas Co. sued landowner Virgil Worth for refusing to lease his land for surface analysis. The courts sided against the company because of permit issues and projected damages to the Worth farm. The case, however, sets a precedent on the rights of mineral estates over surface development.
The court concluded that, “Oklahoma law allows owners of surface interest only to allow geophysical exploration of minerals which would in no way damage or interfere with the right of the mineral owner.”
But Greene disagrees that the wind farm will impact access to the minerals below.
“Windmills are tall and stationary while the oil rigs are further away. There should be no problem extracting oil where a wind farm is,” says Greene. “I believe the location was chosen because it is a very windy spot near electrical transmission lines and the location is not flagged by the Environmental Protection Agency as destructive.”
As many residents of Osage County continue to pull for the wind farm project to become a reality in the next few months, the members of the Osage Nation remain strong in their opposition, echoing wrongdoings of the past.
“The company didn’t contact us. They talked to a previous administration three to four years ago and never came back,” says White. “We’ve lost a lot of land under that kind of attitude and we are not taking it anymore. We have been here a long time and we are not going anywhere.”