In October, Gov. Freudenthal told an energy conference that, in Wyoming, some folks who have made their money off gas and oil drilling and pipelines have “developed a sense of virtue about not destroying the environment,” when faced with wind power. “They may be late conversions,” he added, “but they are singing with great vigor in the front row of the choir.” Most likely, he was talking about Diemer True. True joined the choir last year, when he discovered that Rocky Mountain Power planned to string its 230 kilovolt transmission line right along La Prele Creek, where he has two ranches. Then, Wasatch Wind asked True and his neighbors to lease their land for turbines. True, nearby landowner (and World Bank vice president) Kenneth G. Lay and some of their neighbors held a meeting in Douglas in May 2009 to come up with a plan of action. Around 200 people showed up.
Now, the Alliance has some 600 members and, with its slick Web site, petition drives and well-oiled PR machine, it has gained enough clout to make traditional green groups jealous. Just months after the Alliance formed, True took Rocky Mountain Power President Rich Walje up into the Laramie Range for a look around. As he basked in the quiet of the glades, pastures, aspens and ponderosas, Walje reportedly declared, “We can’t build a power line here.” Rocky Mountain Power withdrew that route from consideration, moving it farther east — an unqualified victory for the group.
The Alliance fits into a bigger, nationwide pattern in which politics seem to get jumbled by wind power. Plenty of old-school energy companies have embraced wind: Whirlwind LLC in Wyoming is owned by Wold Oil Properties, run by Peter Wold, whose father, John, appears on the roughneck statue next to Dave True. Chevron has a controversial wind farm outside of Casper. BP donated $2 million to the University of Wyoming’s wind energy center.
But quite often, the fossil fuel industry — and folks who have made millions from it — tilt at windmills. The NLRA bears an uncanny resemblance to the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The chairman of that group is Bill Koch, a coal and natural gas baron, who, according to Forbes.com, put $1.5 million into the group’s effort to stop a wind-farm proposal right off Cape Cod on environmental grounds. Koch owns Oxbow Mining, which operates one of Colorado’s biggest underground coal mines; and Gunnison Energy, which is drilling for natural gas on the edge of Colorado’s Piceance Basin. In Colorado, a billionaire ranch owner and Oxy USA, a giant natural gas and petroleum company, oppose a power line that would carry solar-generated power out of the San Luis Valley. Fossil-fuel-funded think tanks like the Institute for Energy Research or Pacific Research Institute regularly cast doubts on the promise of renewable energy and green jobs.
In its talk and actions, however, the Alliance and its members appear sincere; not only have they extended their reach beyond their backyards, but they’re beginning — somewhat uncomfortably — to embrace a green attitude. The mountains are “everyone’s escape from city life,” says Sharon Rodeman, an active member of the Alliance whose family has long ranched the Laramie Range. “It’s a good place to rebalance and come back to nature with your kids and teach them to respect wildlife and enjoy the scenery and freeze in a tent.” Lisa Mangus, another Alliance member who worries about the “spiderweb of power lines” wind farms will bring, concedes: “I guess we are environmentalists, even if we’ve never thought about that before. Just this way of life, living in Wyoming.”
In October, the Alliance created the Northern Laramie Range Foundation to raise money to lease parcels of state land in the Laramie Range for recreational purposes. That will not only preclude wind development on those parcels, but it will also keep out other sorts of development –– including oil and gas drilling.
True refuses to call himself an environmentalist: “I’d couch us as preservationists or conservationists.” Still, he says, “We all love the land out there. We just love it.”
Barbara Parsons sits on the couch in her house in Rawlins, the biggest town in aptly named Carbon County, and rattles off a list of the foes she’s fought during three decades of activism with the Wyoming Outdoor Council: The Union 76 uranium mining proposal; the Atlantic Rim coalbed methane boom; the Sinclair refinery, a sprawling collection of tanks, pipes and flaring stacks that kicks out some 75,000 barrels of petroleum products every day (and which spilled 2.73 million gallons of gasoline-grade fluid into the ground this May, putting the company town of Sinclair in danger of becoming flambeed.)
“I guess I’m pretty much of a hell-raiser,” says the 70-year-old Wyoming native, who, with her wavy blonde hair and striking blue eyes, looks more like a country-club social coordinator than the avid hunter and green rabble-rouser that she is. Now, she’s unleashed her hell-raising on wind power, and in so doing, oddly aligned herself with the state’s natural gas industry.
Directly south of Rawlins, on a windswept mesa, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz’s company wants to build a 1,000-turbine wind farm on a patchwork of private and public lands. It will cover some 95,800 acres and generate 2,000 megawatts of power or more, equal to some of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the West. Thousands of truck trips will be made to bring in the turbines, and new substations will spring up in the sage, along with transmission towers and hundreds of miles of roads. Perhaps most worrisome, big sections of the farm overlap core sage grouse habitat. “Our organization has been touting renewables forever,” says Parsons. “But we didn’t think about what it would entail.” (Sidebar: The messy mix of energy and sage grouse).
The sage grouse was once plentiful across the sagebrush-covered West. As the sage was cleared for grazing, and later invaded by energy development and ranchettes, the bird’s numbers plummeted. For the last five years, the prospect of the grouse being listed under the Endangered Species Act has loomed, something that could hit mining, ranching and energy here as hard as the spotted owl’s listing hit timber in the Northwest. In 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the bird. Environmental groups sued, forcing the agency to reconsider; it has until February 2010 to make its decision. Meanwhile, Wyoming has acted aggressively to put its own sage grouse conservation plan in place in hopes of averting a listing.
The state’s strategy is simple: Find and map the parts of the state that are most critical to sage grouse, and protect these core areas, mostly through voluntary measures. The core-area maps, drawn up by a group of agency officials and conservation and industry representatives, were finished last year (Sidebar: The battle for the core of Wyoming). The oil and gas companies have agreed to curtail activities in core areas — drilling is limited to one pad per section –– or stay out of them altogether. In return, the state will streamline permitting and offer other incentives for drilling in non-core areas. “It’s not a perfect concept,” says Sophie Osborn, a biologist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which, along with Wyoming Audubon and Wyoming Wildlife Federation, has endorsed the strategy, “but it will go a long way toward protecting the sage grouse.” While Osborn concedes that an all-out federal listing might be better for the bird, the core-area concept will create a lot less animosity toward the grouse, the feds and environmentalists, making it easier for her group to work in the state.
That raises the question of what was given up for the sake of getting along, and how wind fits — or more likely doesn’t fit — into this strategy. The core areas are all neatly drawn to exclude gas fields, even ones that were sage grouse havens less than a decade ago. That’s in part because the sage grouse is already gone, or too near gone, to be saved in areas of full-field development, says Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming, an adamant defender of the core-area process and strategy. But the core areas also give the drillers plenty of elbow-room for business as usual. The team “did a very good job of carving the core areas out away from the oil and gas wells that are in the state,” said Aaron Clark, a Wyoming Fish and Game Commissioner and advisor to the governor, at the August wind symposium. “A large part of our sage grouse policy is designed around the need to protect jobs.” Indeed, only 7 percent of producing oil and gas wells in the state are located in core areas.
Such a strategy, says Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, could be the death of the sage grouse. In the Powder River Basin, core-area boundaries appear to have missed altogether big chunks of grouse habitat; of more than 4,600 birds counted in the area, only 1,300 were counted in the core areas. And even if those birds all huddle safely within the core areas, they could be cut off from one another by the drilling sacrifice zones in between, harming genetic diversity.
The strategy also disproportionately impacts wind power. Because it wasn’t much of a force — or a threat — when the core areas were drawn up, the wind industry was not involved. As a result, 23 percent of Wyoming’s winds that are class 4 or higher — and about half or more of developable class 6 and 7 winds — are in core areas. And in July, the state put those winds off-limits by essentially banning big wind farms in core areas. Many in the wind industry see it as devastating. The Interwest Energy Alliance — a trade group — said the ban could have “a deleterious effect on renewable energy development” across the West, and that it could kill the development of 10,000 megawatts of wind in Wyoming.
That has put the old-school energy in Wyoming at odds with the new. If wind development is allowed in core areas, it could undermine the integrity of the core-area strategy. That, in turn, could increase the likelihood of the feds listing sage grouse as endangered. And that would lead to stringent regulations for all the bird’s habitat — including most of the current oil and gas fields and untapped reserves.
On this issue, Gov. Freudenthal has tilted towards the hand that feeds the budget. In a letter to the state Senate back in May, he wrote, “Seemingly every acre … is up for grabs in the interest of ‘green, carbon-neutral technologies,’ no matter how ‘brown’ the effects are on the land. It’s like taking a short cut to work through a playground full of school children and claiming ‘green’ as a defense because you were driving a Toyota Prius.” He said that traditional industries have voluntarily avoided prime sage grouse habitat, and that they have offset their impacts by bringing gobs of cash to the state. “I cannot speak with the same certainty with regard to wind development,” he wrote. The major conservation groups and game and fish officials have echoed the sentiment.
“Wind is just being singled out in a lot of ways,” replies Shannon Anderson. “The governor always says that wind should play by the same rules that oil and gas plays by. But oil and gas wrote the rules.”