OKLAHOMA has an abundance of wind, which makes it a great location for firms interested in turning wind into electricity. Oklahoma is also home to the lesser prairie chicken, which can be an impediment to the above endeavor.
Environmentalists would love to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The fact that about 85 percent of the nation's energy is now generated by fossil fuels is beside the point. On the other hand, groups such as the Sierra Club make preserving natural habitat one of their top priorities. What's the green energy lobby to do?
After two years of studying the plan up one side and down the other, the State Department gave its OK for the Keystone XL pipeline. But President Barack Obama scuttled it over concerns about how the pipeline might affect environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska. Closer to home, worries about the American burying beetle's habitat have slowed work on the Keystone XL leg from Cushing to the Texas Gulf Coast. Because the beetle is listed as endangered, companies must hire biologists and survey areas for the critters before digging in areas where the beetle might be found.
For the next year, the federal government will conduct a review to determine whether the lesser prairie chicken should be considered “threatened” instead of “endangered.” The former would leave wind-energy companies with fewer hoops to jump through in the permitting process for wind farms. This would be a tremendous benefit for the state's still-fledgling wind industry and those who invest in it. The bird is found across western Oklahoma, where the wind seemingly never stops blowing and which is home to large wind farms.
A finding that the bird is threatened also would be welcome news given how much money the state has spent on habitat enhancement. Since 1996, $26 million has gone toward conserving more than half a million acres where the lesser prairie chicken — there are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 in the state — is found. No one can say the state hasn't done its part to protect this species.
Last year, Oklahoma generated 7 percent of its electricity from wind. Additional wind development during 2012 is expected to bring the state, by year's end, close to its 2015 goal of 15 percent renewable energy. Experts say wind resources are available to push that number to 20 percent in the not-too-distant future.
One of the new wind projects in Oklahoma this year is a development north of Enid that intends to sell most of its electricity to Alabama, where the wind doesn't blow nearly as much as it does here — and where prairie chickens aren't “threatened” or “endangered.”
With any luck for the wind industry, federal regulatory snags relating to the lesser prairie chicken will be eased in time. Some green groups are sure to squawk, but what else is new? Every conflict has its share of casualties.