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."
From its base to the tip of its rotor, the GE 1.5 megawatt wind turbine is 380 feet tall. Each rotor blade is 122 feet long. It took 325 people five months to erect the 158 turbines on this 13,500-acre wind farm.
Laine Anderson, a mild-mannered guy with a mop of blond hair, rattles off the stats, and throws in some more: Weight of each turbine (450,000 pounds); number of semi-trucks to haul one turbine (six to eight). Anderson is the operations manager for the PacifiCorp Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind farm. A big metal building houses his office. Inside, a dry erase chalkboard has a list of to-do tasks scrawled on it, including, "Mice in turbines, exterminator." Just down the hall, two desktop computers monitor the entire farm, providing reams of real-time information on each wind machine.
Anderson was born in Encampment, in the southern part of the state, graduated from the University of Wyoming and became a petroleum engineer. Later, wanting a change, he turned to wind and landed here. Anderson and his colleagues -- about a dozen full-time contractors -- tend to the farm. The turbines need checkups every six months or so, as well as occasional tinkering in between. "Basically," Anderson says, "it's a never-ending job. They're worse than cars sometimes."
He takes me on a tour in a big white truck, making me wear a hardhat because turbine blades can throw chunks of ice. From the top of a hill, as a bunch of antelope amble nearby, Anderson points southward through the forest of windmills to a huge plume of steam that marks the Dave Johnston power plant. Then he motions to the earth all around where we stand. The wind farm sits on the reclaimed remnants of an old, giant coal mine; all this land was once torn up, gouged by draglines, its carboniferous bounty burned in the plant down below. "We wanted to take a coal mine," says Anderson. "And make it useful."
Anderson never mentions climate change. In fact, in all my conversations with Wyomingites about wind, the term rarely comes up. That shouldn't be surprising. The idea of increasingly extreme weather events doesn't mean much when you already live in a place where snowdrifts can bury your cows, and a wind gust can flip a dozen tractor-trailers on a single stretch of highway. Rising sea levels are hard to imagine in the inland heart of energy country, where mysterious fracking fluids come out of the faucet and power lines are strung like spaghetti across the plains. And where allowing a bunch of windmills onto your land could keep you from having to sell out and move to the suburbs.
In Wyoming, there are two struggles. One is between the old school of energy and the new; the other pits the local view of energy against the global view. In the end, the failure to reconcile these dichotomies may be far more harmful to Wyoming's economy than any endangered species listing. More and more, the market is going to demand clean energy. Right now, however, Wyoming is not prepared to supply it.
To many, the Glenrock wind farm is a symbol of a brighter future, in which Wyoming's wind helps it atone for the sins of fossil fuel. Jonathan Naughton, the director of the University of Wyoming's Wind Energy Center, envisions a world in which the state's energy struggles give way to synergy. What if, he asks, wind provided the massive amounts of power that the fossil fuel industry now consumes? New turbines would sprout from old gas fields, their compressor stations and other facilities powered by wind, and wind-powered electricity could gasify coal underground -- a cleaner method of using coal. Says Naughton, "There are some really interesting, unexplored, symbiotic things between our energy sources."
But in the meantime, Wyoming still faces wind resistance. The Converse County meeting ended with the planning commission voting to recommend a moratorium for the whole county. The county commissioners shot the moratorium down, but the NLRA still plans to pursue it. And the struggle goes on.
After saying goodbye to Anderson, I hit the road again, stopping at a place where it nuzzles up against the wind-farm's boundary. I slither through the fence and walk up to a turbine, until I'm directly beneath its blades. The only sound is a low-pitched sort of watery sigh, kind of like a slowed-down version of an unborn baby's heartbeat on an ultrasound. No gears grind or scream on this solitary giant, nothing spews out of it, no drill bits penetrate, and no strange fluids are shot into or sucked out of the earth. The wind blows, the arms turn, and electrons flow through cables, down the tower, under the ground, and into the power lines where they'll join up with the coal-generated electrons 13 miles away. They flow into the bloodstream of the omnipotent, tentacled organism called the grid. Somewhere, someone flips a switch. And there is light.
Jonathan Thompson is editor of High Country News.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
For more information on Wyoming Wind and the politics surrounding it, see the related sidebars: The battle for the core of Wyoming and The messy mix of energy and sage grouse. Click on the live links in the text above (for sources, documents, links to specific organizations, etc.) Also, keep an eye on the excellent energy coverage by Dustin Bleizeffer and his colleagues at the Casper Star-Tribune. The Wyoming Wind Symposium in August gave a very comprehensive, multiple-viewpoint look at the issues surrounding wind, from the economics of a wind farm, to concepts such as "wind rights," which would split wind development rights from the land (leading to a split-estate possibility). Powerpoint materials and videos (click on "Other Events" then "Wyoming Wind Symposium") from the presentation are available.