Environment, Legislature

“The military isn’t here today to defend itself”: At last minute, four-year moratorium on wind energy emerges in House Bill 589

H ouse Bill 589, a piece of complex renewable energy legislation, was supposed to epitomize the spirit of cooperation. As the bill was unveiled on April 5, lawmakers heralded a nearly year-long process in which representatives from the utilities and clean energy industries hammered out a measure that, while imperfect, they could nonetheless agree on.

But that collaboration, in both spirit and letter, was upended today in the Senate Rules Committee, when a four-year moratorium on wind energy abruptly appeared in the fourth edition of the bill.

Over the next four years, the legislature would hire the Matrix company to draw maps showing where potential interference between 600-foot wind turbines and military training exercises could occur.

Sen. Harry Brown, who’s responsible for the anti-wind provision, called lawmakers’ failure to “protect the military” and its economic value to eastern North Carolina “the biggest injustice the legislature has ever done.”

Brown has repeatedly cited the turbines’ potential interference with the military as a reason to stop wind energy development. He tried to smother wind energy during the last session, but was foiled by disagreements in a conference committee. This time, though, the Onslow County Republican used a complex bill  — with perks for nearly every interested party — as a vehicle for his anti-wind obsession.

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“This bill is the product of delicate negotiations by a lot of stakeholders,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr. The Durham County Democrat opposed the bill because of the anti-wind provision. “Why do we need to put the moratorium in this bill? Why not deal with it independently?”

“This is the perfect bill for it,” Brown replied.

Perfect, because the other ironclad and hard-fought provisions in the bill make it hard to oppose.

The maps created by Matrix during the moratorium, Brown said, “will tell us where to build is safe.”

However, as NCPW reported in February, there are already federal checks and maps in place to prevent conflicts between the military and wind farms. Federal law requires that the Defense Department review any proposed wind farms near military bases. The DoD established a siting clearinghouse for developers and the military to work through legal and logistical issues.

According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, “ The clearinghouse has reviewed thousands of projects, the vast majority of which have been found to have minimal or no impact on military operations and readiness.”

Brown said that the Department of Defense can move its training exercises to other bases, such as in California and Texas,” to avoid interference. However, wind farms operate safely near bases in many military-heavy states — including California and Texas. (Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas did just sign a bill into law that would make wind farms near military bases ineligible for property tax exemptions.)

“I don’t need anybody to tell me how important the military is to North Carolina,” said Sen. Paul Lowe, Jr., a Democrat from Forsyth County. His wife is a retired Air Force veteran. “But I’m hearing that wind and the military can co-exist just fine.”

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Unlike wind energy companies, which have lobbyists, the military, Brown said “can’t do that.” However, the military does have legislative liaisons, which can communicate with federal and state governments. The multi-billion-dollar military industry, Brown added “can’t be here today to defend itself.”

Conservatives are usually a torch-bearer for private property rights, but not in the case of wind energy. “This bill tramples on private property rights,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat.

A representative of Weyerhauser, the timber company, also opposed the anti-wind language. Nancy Thompson said the company owns 600,000 acres  in eastern North Carolina and pays about $6 million in taxes to the state, not including payroll taxes. The company timbers and replants trees on its land, but also leased some of the property to developers of the Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City. Those leases, Thompson said, help “sustain us during downturns in the economy.”

Even though Brown contended that the bill would “give the wind industry certainty,” the moratorium, retroactive to January of this year, would jeopardize the future of two wind energy projects currently in the pipeline.

Betsy McCorkle, a lobbyist for the NC Sustainable Energy Association and Apex Clean Energy — one of the companies with a pending project — asked lawmakers to oppose the bill. “The changes no longer move North Carolina’s energy industry forward,” she said.

Since 2014, Apex Clean Energy has been working with the military and through the federal permitting process for a $500 million wind farm in Chowan and Perquimans counties. Both counties have low tax bases, and Apex’s investment, McCorkle said, will make the company “the largest taxpayer in the counties.”

Apex already has land leases in place with private property owners, McCorkle said, adding, “Don’t change the rules on us.”

The Rules Committee passed the bill with a favorable report. Because of the changes to the bill, it now goes to a conference committee.

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