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Wind energy developer runs into a green wall

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Articles - October 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Wind farms are welcomed by some rural residents and under fire by environmentalists. (These turbines near Rufus were photographed with an infrared camera.)

Chris Crowley, however, is not going anywhere. He’s already braved one harrowing moment early in Columbia Energy Partners’ life, not two years after he left a grassroots music startup called Hardroad.com (“That’s what I should have named my wind company,” he says.) A few days before Christmas 2001, his first wind project near the town of Arlington, dependent on loans personally guaranteed by Crowley, suddenly lost its power purchaser, Pacific Power. He and his wife and two kids sat around the kitchen table and wept, before Crowley, who then as now operates with a small team and a large consulting Rolodex, went back out and sold the project to Horizon.

These days, Crowley dons his trusty company baseball cap and rallies ruralites in Harney County. They’re drawn to his juicy promise of hundreds of millions in investment, 150 construction jobs during each of the projects, and around 10 permanent posts at each farm. This area has been on a long, slow decline with shrinking timber harvests on surrounding public land and battered further by the closing two years ago of a Monaco Coach RV plant. Unemployment now stands at over 16% in the county, half the remaining workforce is in the public sector and the largest private employer is the Safeway in the county seat of Burns (population 3,000).

Crowley also has been going the extra mile for the local seal of approval. In addition to hiring a crew to build an early access road, he bought a Chevy Yukon at the dealership in Burns and supported the local Fourth of July fireworks display this summer. He’s held informational meetings for handfuls of people in tiny ranch communities like Diamond (“Population: 5” reads the token sign) and fielded questions about windmills tipping over cows. He dines and swaps pictures of his kids with Harney County Judge Steve Grasty.

He even has brought his family down for spring breaks. “We talked about moving down here,” he says. “I wish we had.”

When it came time for a hearing in June on whether the state should bar wind development in a special management area around Steens Mountain, almost 200 people turned up at the Harney County fairgrounds in support of the project, overwhelming the dozen or so objectors.

“Chris did it right. He got involved. He went to dinner with people,” says Grasty. “It’s what the obstructionist groups won’t do,” he says, referring to environmental groups. “They don’t have representation in the community. They don’t come to the fair or football games. This community will absorb people quickly. It will also put up barriers if you don’t want to participate.” Grasty, for his part, has become a windphile, with a faded, early-1900s picture at the ready near his desk showing 27 tin water-pump windmills in downtown Burns.

But excitement around town has given way to restlessness in the three years of planning, delays and petitions that followed swift county approval for the first project in mid-2007.

Crowley hasn’t been in Harney County for 10 minutes on his mid-summer trip when he’s greeted with an earnest, “When you going to put me to work?” from an equipment operator, while standing around the local shooting range.

“As soon as I can get the green light on this thing!” Crowley fires back, gamely.

Down in town, he introduces himself to a group of women at a local watering hole, and one promptly asks: “My son’s 20. Can you give him a job?”

Ranchers who’ve set aside reservations about 400 foot-tall turbines and doubts about global warming and Obama (“I don’t talk straight politics much,” says Crowley) are now wondering when their royalties are going to start. “If you can get this built, I can retire,” rancher Hoyt Wilson tells Crowley, as they stand at the base of the majestic 1,000-foot ridge Wilson owns on the Steens’ east side that will be “cluttered” — as Wilson says — with the first 45 windmills known as the Echanis project. Wilson, 68, figures the turbines offer a way to keep his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch intact and float his marginal cow-calf operation so he can hand the ranch off to his kids. “Then again, I might die before you get this thing up!” he jests with Crowley.

Whatever anxiousness greets him in Harney, Crowley is sold on the ranchers’ salt-of-the-earth pride, the way they fight off rattlesnake bites and give birth at home and live to 90 in the face of financial and legislative distress. And as he drives Harney’s back roads, noting notorious caves, who’s moved their cattle and where a herd of imported buffalo used to roam, he channels a worn voice and asks, “When does Harney County get something?”

Environmentalists aren’t so sympathetic, noting that ranchers made out handsomely in the 2000 deal that saw them give up lands around the Steens peak to create a cow-free wilderness. Landowners received cash payments and added contiguous rangelands at lower elevations in exchange. They also agreed to forgo substantial development in a new management zone around the mountain, where Columbia Energy’s two unpermitted projects would go.

ONDA’s Brent Fenty points to a line in the 2000 Steens Mountain Wilderness Act prohibiting anything “different from the current character and uses of the land” in the special management zone. But Crowley notes that an appendix to the Steens Act also says that public land managers may promote clean energy in the area.

Retrenchment looked like such a distant possibility to Crowley this spring that he handed off negotiating with ONDA to his lawyer, Jon Norling.

But slowly over the summer, the playing field began to change. First, ONDA hinted at a willingness to bargain when it agreed to abstain from legal action on another energy project — the Ruby natural gas pipeline from southwestern Wyoming into Malin, just south of Klamath Falls — in exchange for a $22 million agreement from pipeline builder El Paso Corp. to fund habitat restoration and grazing permit retirement.

Then the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is studying Columbia Energy’s transmission line across the Steens cooperative management area and the nearby Malheur bird refuge, said the wind turbines in all of the Columbia Energy projects would only be visible from 0.4% of the Steens wilderness area.

When Norling finally got a meeting with the ONDA in early August, he says the tone was lighter. “We were buoyed by the Ruby pipeline deal,” Norling says. According to Norling, ONDA staffers no longer raised any concerns about scenic blight from the turbines, and the two groups began sketching out an agreement that would set aside land and money to mitigate losses to wildlife habitat from the wind turbines, in exchange for no legal challenges from ONDA. ONDA leaders maintain that no deal has been reached. “Our position hasn’t changed,” says Liz Nysson, ONDA’s climate change coordinator.

Even if there is a glimmer of progress, Crowley is not smiling yet. A deal in the next few months could pave the way for the first project to come online as early as next year. But while his colleagues view the concession as part of the cost of doing business, Crowley seems to see it as deeply dissatisfying. A new compensation fund, similar to the one ONDA set up as part of the Ruby pipeline, would mean that Crowley’s wind projects weren’t much better than a natural gas pipeline. The approval of green groups needs to be bought in the same way. And that’s a harsh reality.

“We’re green power, not fossil fuels!” Crowley says. “I hope that still has some bearing on things. We’re a good thing.”



L Gisner
0 #1 Renewable Energy & High Technology ProjectL Gisner 2010-10-01 13:06:42
Once again after reading your article...goody , goody, people & govt agencies are once again stopping high technology energy business and destroying the future employment for transformation from the old industrial economy to renewable energy technology that is needed to return this USA into the leading clean energy country. Which of course would not only put USA in lead in this field, but create the necessary high tech jobs and revenue streams to pay-off future debt under the present crisis status. Question is what is the percentage of the population represents clean energy progress to create renewable energy jobs, compared to the right & left wing evironmentalist walk within this area? Majority Rule:
L Gisner
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Eastern Oregon Citizen
0 #2 Is the Picture Worth Distroying?Eastern Oregon Citizen 2010-10-05 14:19:48
I appreciated your article on the current conflict happening in eastern Oregon regarding our need for 'green' energy, jobs, and the concern these new industrial sites will have on the wildlife & human enviorment. In finding an answer that has some measure of balance, I hope that we are fully weighing the consequences of destroying our heritage viewscapes. In Harney County, the magnificant Steens Mountain and desert; In Union County daytime distruction of a prestine skyline near Union, and the nightime light pollution that turns a starry night into a viewscape of an alien red light district.

Is the very picture which we have held dear for over 150 years, and held sacred by the First Nations for over 10,000 years, worth distroying for short-term jobs and revenues leaving Oregon to foreign wind energy investors?

As a citizen of eastern Oregon I hope we have more vision, and look for alternatives that don't change are character...our heritage.
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Two-Bit Mack
0 #3 Are we missin' the point?Two-Bit Mack 2010-10-06 09:26:14
This article is interesting and well-written in that is illustrates opposite sides of an important issue while exposing some significant warts of this transplanted Northeasterner trying to solve the problems of the west. Interesting that this fella has decided he needs to "unite" a state he does not even live in. Even so, it is even more interesting that there is no exploration or an explanation of a middle ground by the writer or more importantly the company sponsor of the wind projects when given this platform.

Begs the question, whose responsibility is it to reach to middle ground first - developer or environmental community in this case, or better yet, how should a solution be crafted that works for all? I think we need to ask ourselves, and more so, the interested parties closer to the issue than the readers, why is this an issue that is being played out in the press? Whose gonna show their leadership here rather than resortin' to a war of words and poetic images? Honestly, what's to be gained by such an article other than selling more issues of Oregon Business Magazine to stimulate the economy, which isn’t so bad in these tryin’ times?

The commenters above make some good points on both the clean energy progress and the preservation / conservation sides of the equation. But that is where the real conversation needs to take place and the solution needs to come from in order to make the equation work, create jobs and conserve our heritage for future generations. It is not about "my" agenda or "your" agenda, it is about "our" agenda. One suggestion would be for the folks involved in this issue to get to know one another by putting down their swords, drinkin’ a quiet six-pack of beer on a porch somewhere as a starting point or next step, stop the self-aggrandizi n’ and start compromisin’, other wise....
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Robert G
0 #4 The NIMBYs Are At It AgainRobert G 2011-03-24 11:55:18
So let me get this straight, we don't want dams anymore, we don't want coal or diesel plants, nuclear power is out of the question, and now even wind power is not good enough. I think Bill Cosby said it best, "I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Keep pushing forward Mr. Crowley.
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0 #5 Freeze in the DarkLisa 2011-03-24 12:00:59
As Robert G says, the Greenies don't want us to have coal, diesel, nuclear power and even wind is getting a bad rap. I guess the real message of the Enviro-police is "Freeze in the Dark."
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