Osage Nation battling to block construction of wind energy facility

Osage Nation battling to block construction of wind energy facility

Despite recent procurement of the construction permit for a 94-turbine wind-energy facility west of Pawhuska, unrelenting opposition from the Osage Nation continues to hamper efforts to get the project underway.

Plans were initiated more than five years ago for the Osage Wind facility, a 150-megawatt capacity wind farm to be built on land leased from property owners along a seven-mile stretch of prairie located east of Burbank and just to the north (primarily) of U.S. Highway 60.

Wind Capital Group, a Missouri firm that proposed the wind farm project, is currently seeking an “eagle take permit” through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such a permit would protect the company from legal penalties in the event that eagles or other protected species are harmed by the turbines.

Osage Nation officials — whose tribal members consider eagles to be sacred — have gone on record as opposing the eagle-take permit. The tribe also is attempting to delay the wind-farm project because of concerns about possible damage to archaeological sites located within the construction areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has scheduled a Sept. 12 meeting with representatives from the Osage Nation and Wind Capitol Group, agency officials said.

More than a dozen eagle-take applications have been filed with the federal agency since Wind Capital submitted its request in October 2012 — but, to date, no permits have been granted. Officials expect the Osage Wind application to be the first considered.

As proposed, the permit would allow for up to three eagles to be killed each year by the turbines with no penalties assessed against the wind farm owners. The initial permit would cover a 5-year period, while the estimated life span of the wind-farm project is approximately 40 years, officials said.

Jerry Thompson, the service’s chief of the Southwest Region Migratory Birds Permits office, is in charge of issuing the bald eagle kill permit. He said an environmental impact study that addresses cultural issues will soon be sent to the Osage Nation and several other tribes that may be affected.

The Osage Nation also is pushing for full archaeological research in the wind farm’s acreage, saying the area is some of the densest in all of Oklahoma for culturally significant tribal sites, such as camp sites and burials.

“We’re sitting and waiting on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision on whether they are going to enforce federal law … and order an archaeology study, which they did but never brought the tribe in for consultation,” Osage Nation Assistant Chief Scott BigHorse said.

“Right now we feel like we’re guinea pigs,” said the assistant chief. “We are going to be the first tribe ever that’s going to have a wind farm receive an eagle-kill permit in their back yard.”

BigHorse said the tribe probably will consider court action if the permit is issued.

The National Congress of American Indians joined the Osage Nation in opposition to a federal policy of permitting eagle kills by wind industry developments. NCAI officials noted the dangerous precedents posed by the government allowing such infringements — particularly on tribal lands and without regard for tribal cultural interests and authority.

In August 2011, Osage County Planning Commission members voted approval of the wind-farm proposal made by Wind Capital Group. A conditional-use permit granted by the commission allowed the developers two years in which to begin construction, Osage County Planning Director Jake Bruno said.

As the two-year permit deadline approached, Wind Capital made payment on the construction application early last month (Aug. 7), commission records show. The St. Louis-based firm is required to commence construction within 90 days to satisfy terms of the county’s wind ordinance.

Wind Capitol officials had previously announced hopes to start construction this summer, but the recently said work will begin by the end of this year. If constructed, the Osage Wind site would be the first wind farm in eastern Oklahoma.

During the 2011 public hearing, opinions were split over the wind farm project. Much support came from patrons of the Shidler Public Schools, which stands to benefit from taxes produced by the facility.

Strong opposition to the proposal was heard from wildlife groups and landowners, including tribal officials with the Osage Nation — who vowed to use all legal options available to hinder the project.

In a lawsuit filed in late 2011, the Osage attempted to prevent construction of the facility based on suppositions that it could interfere with the tribe’s mineral-estate rights. However, a federal judge in Tulsa ruled that the mere possibility of interference would not warrant granting an injunction against the proposed development.

Cost of the Wind Capital construction permit was based on $1,100 per megawatt of rated capacity, Bruno said. Power produced by the Osage Wind project would be sold to Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., a utility company based in southwest Missouri, according to officials with the company.

Founded in 2005 by politically well-connected St. Louis businessman Tom Carnahan, Wind Capital Group has completed several wind-energy projects in Missouri.

In 2008, an investment was made in the company by a Dublin, Ireland-based development and infrastructure fund, NTR (for National Toll Roads), which had prior interests in ethanol, solar energy and recycling. NTR also is a former majority owner in an international wind development firm. Wind Capital has now expanded its project area to include Kansas and Oklahoma and parts of the southeastern U.S.

NTR purchased Carnahan’s interests and assumed complete control of the wind-energy company in late 2012.