Commentary: Legislation Blows Hot Air at Wind Turbines

RUSS LAY
5/20/2019

Sometimes the actions of politicians are a little confusing.

Consider Senate Bill 377. It was introduced into the General Assembly by Sen. Harry Brown, the state senate majority leader, and its aim is to restrict the construction of wind turbines in substantial portions of eastern North Carolina and a few areas in the western part of the state.

Titled the Military Base Protection Act, it seeks to “prohibit construction, operation, or expansion of wind energy facilities in areas of the state where impacts of vertical obstructions have been determined to be significantly high, with a high risk for degrading safety and the military’s ability to perform aviation training.”

If you’ve been to Elizabeth City lately, especially the area around the Walmart complex, you’ve probably seen a farm of wind turbines nearby. These are part of the massive Amazon Wind Farm encompassing 22,000 acres in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. It is made up of 104 wind turbines and can generate upt to 208 megawatts of power.

The land is leased from more than 60 private landowners, creating an added source of income for the region’s distressed farming communities.

Sen. Brown claims that further construction of wind turbines poses a threat to military operations, especially pilot training. He further warns that building more turbines will create an even more ominous threat — the future closure of the region’s military bases as a result of turbines encroaching on air space.

The military’s BRAC process (Base Realignment and Closure) is used to periodically to evaluate military bases and other facilities and determine if they should remain open, be consolidated with other bases or closed altogether.

While budget constraints are the primary driver in determining base closures, other factors, such as encroachment on land and air space around bases, can also lower a facility’s score and endanger its future.

Outer Banks residents who once lived in Hampton Roads are probably familiar with the encroachment issues that surrounded Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach and continue to plague the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake

In those two instances, nearby residential and commercial development caused the BRAC committee to seriously consider closing Oceana until Virginia Beach took aggressive measures to halt and even remove some development around the base.

In the case of Fentress, the Navy wants to close the facility and sought to build a new landing field in rural North Carolina, an effort that was opposed in a bi-partisan show of force by community leaders and elected officials from Currituck and Camden and as far south as Plymouth and Washington, N.C.

For the time being, the Navy has abandoned its search to find a replacement for Fentress.

But wind turbines are another matter altogether, and the Department of Defense, sensing a shift in the political winds that encourages the development of alternative energy sources, decided to get in front of the wind turbine issue with the creation of the DoD’s “Siting Clearinghouse.”

The clearinghouse was authorized by Congress in 2011 to focus “DoD’s official engagement within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Obstruction Evaluation / Airport Airspace Analysis (OE/AAA) process and set clear guidelines for when and how DoD may object to energy project proposals. Under this statute, the DoD may only oppose the development of an energy project when impacts cannot be feasibly and affordably mitigated, and may significantly degrade or impair military operations.”

This was the process employed by the DoD to work with Amazon on the Pasquotank/Perquimans wind farm. The Clearinghouse looked at threats to low altitude pilot training as well as radar interference issues and did not oppose the construction of the facility.

Two years later there have been no reported issues from military sources with the wind farm.

In spite of the lack of apparent problems, state Sen. Bill Cook publicly called for the turbines to be removed, citing potential issues with radar, and co-sponsored a bill in 2017 to restrict future wind turbine construction. That bill died in committee, but the legislature was successful in passing an 18-month moratorium on land-based wind turbine projects.

Brown’s bill cites no evidence that the military is asking for these restrictions. Instead, he has trotted out a handful of retired military officers raising the specter of future base closings at the next BRAC round of assessment.

The state’s two U.S. senators, Richard Burr, and Thom Tillis, both Republicans have not expressed or relayed concerns from the Pentagon or the military regarding wind turbine projects.

Likewise, the late Rep. Walter Jones, another Republican whose district encompassed virtually every military air base and training area in eastern North Carolina, was silent on the Amazon Wind Farm and never once expressed alarm about wind turbines while he served the region until his death in February.

At an April hearing before the state Senate’s Commerce and Insurance committee, Sen. Brown trotted out one retired general and the mayor of Havelock, NC, a former Marine Corps Harrier pilot to speak in favor of his bill.

Another retired general and the former executive director of the DoD’s Siting Clearinghouse stated Brown’s bill was unnecessary.

According to a WRAL report, Brown “pushed back” and a legislative staff member said he had been told by local military personnel the Clearinghouse had let wind turbines “slip through” that were opposed by the local base commanders.

In spite of the differing opinions, lacking any public outcry by the military or DoD officials concerning the construction of future wind turbine projects in the state, S377 appears to be overkill and adds to the perception that many North Carolina legislators are simply opposed to anything remotely thought of as “environmentally friendly.”

One would expect the military, as it did for years in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, to issue warnings or openly call for a ban on such projects,

Even better, the military could provide a map of their own depicting areas they would prefer to remain wind turbine free without the help of part-time state legislators banning such facilities using a map created by Brown and the bill’s supporters with no apparent collaboration with DoD.

S377 also appears to run contrary to many other Republican sacred cows, including the property rights of those leasing the land for these projects and the fact that the Amazon Wind Farm and other such projects are private-sector endeavors epitomizing free enterprise.

Finally, here are GOP legislators trying to impose regulations and in this case, an outright ban of a private-sector industry in certain areas who are largely working with private landowners. Such regulation coming from conservatives is perplexing, to say the least.

Many of these Republicans have campaigned to diversify the economy of the rural communities they represent. Wind turbines provide much-needed income to the region’s small farmers who experienced the loss of tobacco crops to regulation and changing consumer preferences, cotton to India and other low-cost growers, and the inability to compete with the corporate-owned mega-farms in the nations Grain Belt.

As Republican state Sen. Bob Steinburg told the Voice, “I have grave concerns about the constitutionality of Senator Harry Brown’s Bill, SB 377, which will if passed ban wind energy development in over 40 counties in eastern North Carolina, many of which are Tier 1 counties in desperate need of economic development and revenue.

“This is a clear violation of the personal property rights we have provided to us in the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the passage of this bill would be in direct violation of our nations Supremacy Clause which invalidates a state law that conflicts with federal law. Federal law is that the FAA and USDOT regulate airspace, not states.”

“Sen. Brown’s desire to protect the military bases from being impacted negatively by the next round of Base Realignments that are not currently even scheduled might be understandable. But he should recognize that the United States Department of Defense Clearing House has a process to ensure that any project or development will receive the utmost scrutiny before it is considered for approval, ”  Steinburg noted.

Few would question Sen. Steinburg’s conservative credentials nor his commitment to the nation’s military and its service members. So one is left to wonder why Sen. Brown and other Republicans are opposing the wishes of members of their own party and the constituents who put them in office.

If Sen. Brown and company are concerned about wind turbines threatening the region, it would seem the best way to allay those concerns would be to ask our federally elected senators and representatives to make sure the Siting Clearinghouse process works as Congress intended — taking into consideration the concerns of local base commanders as well as ensuring such projects would not count against these facilities in future BRAC assessments.

We’re pretty sure the military will not allow a few wind turbines to threaten bases and training areas around MCAS Cherry Point, Seymour Johnson AFB and the USN/USAF Dare bombing ranges. We see no reason to arbitrarily ban such projects when the rural North Carolina economy continues to lag behind the rest of the state in economic growth and tax revenue sources such as wind turbine farms.