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Tough Talk As Oklahoma's Wind Industry Becomes A Political Target

Mar 6, 2018
Originally published on March 9, 2018 9:12 pm

Here's how contentious the wind industry has become in Oklahoma: When a state representative discovered a GPS tracker on his pickup truck late last year, he immediately suspected the industry, in an allegation straight out of a political thriller.

"I pissed off a huge corporation," Rep. Mark McBride told a police officer, according to audio from a police body camera obtained by StateImpact Oklahoma. "You know anything about wind farms?"

McBride explained he may have been targeted because he was writing legislation to increase taxes on the wind industry.

The case is under investigation. The wind industry denies any wrongdoing.

Such tensions are a major turnaround.

Starting in the early '90s, this longtime oil and gas state embraced the wind industry, wooing companies with generous tax breaks. Oklahoma recently became second in the country for wind power capacity, after Texas. The nation's largest wind farm is under construction here.

But the cost of wind incentives has ballooned as the industry has grown. Lawmakers started missing that lost money, as oil prices crashed and state budget gaps widened. Now, some say Oklahoma can no longer afford the tax breaks that helped wind power take hold.

On the local News9 TV show Hot Seat, McBride said budget cuts were already hurting public workers and forcing teachers to quit, and he put some blame on wind companies.

"In my opinion, it's time that this industry stepped up," he said. "Quit worrying about their Wall Street investors ... and put something back into the state instead of continuing to take away from it."

Battle lines have been drawn in dueling TV ads. In one, paid for by a coalition that includes oil and gas interests, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating laments, "I signed a bill that was supposed to jump-start the wind industry, help the state and create jobs. It didn't happen."

Another ad, paid for by the Wind Coalition, counters, "Big oil doesn't want to pay their fair share, and wants to run wind out of the state."

For many landowners and local governments, revenue from the wind industry has proved essential.

"I'm pretty proud of our little courthouse here," says Dewey County Commissioner Junior Salisbury, showing off spacious rooms and shiny wood trim.

The new courthouse was built with a three-quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase that also upgraded the jail and renovated the fairgrounds. Officials figured it would take 25 years to pay off, and at first, Salisbury says, the county was barely meeting its payments.

"Then we got a wind farm," he says, "and our oil and gas picked up, and in under four-and-a-half-years it was paid for." Salisbury says wind farms also generate substantial revenue for local schools.

But he's grown increasingly frustrated with lawmakers over the years as they've steadily ended incentives for the wind industry. He's mad at some who want to pull back tax credits already promised to wind companies. He spoke out against a tax on wind-produced electricity that was proposed by Gov. Mary Fallin and groups backed by the state's influential oil industry.

"I promise you," Salisbury says, "I'm going to get in there and fight harder and harder to swing this back our way.

A state revenue package that included a wind production tax was defeated last month, but still has support in many political circles.

The massive Wind Catcher project in Oklahoma's Panhandle is being built without any state tax credits or incentives, says Stan Whiteford with Public Service Company of Oklahoma, the wind farm's co-developer.

But the tough talk and proposed rollbacks are causing some other companies to reconsider.

"Landowners were incredibly disappointed," says Sean Logsdon of E.ON Climate and Renewables. The company has signed more than 100 lease agreements for a new wind farm, and invested millions laying the groundwork for the project. But "we do have limited capital, and we just couldn't take the risk in Oklahoma," Logsdon says.

The company canceled that project and instead invested in a $400 million wind farm that just started operating in south Texas.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The state of Oklahoma is known as an oil and gas state. But it's also a leading producer of wind power, and the nation's largest wind farm is under construction there. Now some politicians say the state can no longer afford the tax breaks that helped the industry take hold. Joe Wertz of Stateimpact reports.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Here's how contentious the wind industry debate has become in Oklahoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MCBRIDE: I found a tracker.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: OK.

WERTZ: This conversation is from a police body camera, and it alleges a plot straight out of a political thriller. State Representative Mark McBride told police he found a tracking device planted underneath his pickup truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Now, as to who you think it might be, who are you thinking about?

MCBRIDE: I pissed off a huge corporation. You know anything about wind farms?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Mm-hm (ph). I mean, just basic knowledge, but I know about them.

WERTZ: McBride says he might be a target because he supports increasing taxes on the wind industry. The industry denies any wrongdoing. The case is under investigation. Oklahoma started wooing wind companies in the early '90s with generous tax breaks. But the cost of these incentives ballooned as the industry grew. Lawmakers started missing the money as oil prices crashed and state budget gaps widened. On a local News9 TV show called "Hot Seat," lawmaker McBride said budget cuts were already hurting public workers and forcing teachers to quit. He said the wind industry should pay more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOT SEAT")

MCBRIDE: In my opinion, it's time that this industry stepped up and quit worrying about their Wall Street investors and put something back into the state instead of continuing to take away from it.

WERTZ: So an industry that was once a political darling is now at the center of a capital catfight. Battle lines are drawn in dueling press conferences and TV ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK KEATING: When I served as governor, I signed a bill that was supposed to jump-start the wind industry, help the state and create jobs. It didn't happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Big oil still doesn't want to pay their fair share and wants to run wind out of the state.

WERTZ: For many of Oklahoma's local governments, though, wind incentives are essential.

JUNIOR SALISBURY: Well, this is our records room back here.

WERTZ: The Dewey County Courthouse is one of the state's newest. The offices are spacious with fresh carpet and shiny wood trim. County Commissioner Junior Salisbury is excited to play tour leader.

SALISBURY: Yeah, I'm pretty proud of our little courthouse here. I really, really am.

WERTZ: The new courthouse was built with a three-quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase that also upgraded the jail and renovated the fairgrounds. Officials figured it would take 25 years to pay it off. And at first, Salisbury says, the county was barely meeting its payments.

SALISBURY: Then we got a wind farm come in and our oil and gas picked up. And in under 4 1/2 years it was paid for.

WERTZ: Salisbury says wind farms also bring a lot of money to his local schools. But he's grown more and more frustrated with lawmakers over the years as they've steadily ended incentives for the wind industry. He's pushing lawmakers to block a new tax on wind-produced electricity championed by Oklahoma's Republican governor and groups backed by the state's influential oil industry.

SALISBURY: I'll promise you. I'm going to get in there, and I'm going to fight harder and harder to swing this back our way.

WERTZ: The rollback is causing some wind companies to reconsider. Sean Logsdon is with E.ON Climate and Renewables, which signed lease agreements with more than a hundred Oklahoma landowners.

SEAN LOGSDON: Those landowners were incredibly disappointed. And me being from Oklahoma, you know, I was incredibly disappointed.

WERTZ: E.ON invested millions laying the groundwork for a new wind farm project here. But...

LOGSDON: We do have limited capital and, you know, we just couldn't take the risk in Oklahoma.

WERTZ: So the company canceled that project and spent the money on a brand-new wind farm in South Texas. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.