As opponents of wind power find themselves unable to use coal as a talking point, Drain believes, they’re instead turning to arguments about the viewshed, saying that wind farms mar the wide-open vistas that are part of Wyoming’s very soul. While developers often take pains to place turbines beneath ridgelines and otherwise use the land’s natural contours to block the structures from view, that’s not always possible. Turbine placement hinges on other issues, such as where the strongest winds blow and where birds, such as bald and golden eagles, tend to nest and fly. Groups like the Northern Laramie Range Alliance have fought against turbines and transmission lines that detract from quintessential Wyoming vistas, and state politicians have jumped on the viewshed argument to urge extreme caution in building out Wyoming’s wind industry.
“We need to get something for what we’re giving up, because we’re gonna give up a lot,” Cale Case, a state senator who is a proponent of raising the wind tax, told an audience in Laramie last fall.
“The fact is, sure, there’s positive and negative about building a bunch of wind in Wyoming,” says Drain. “But when you’ve got no plan B and your current revenues are so heavily dependent on oil and gas and coal, and coal’s gonna go away in a few decades, that doesn’t spell good things for the citizens of Wyoming. You’ve got to get the money somewhere.”
Indeed, support for wind in the state legislature seems to be on the rise—or at least opposition is waning. During virtually every legislative session, a handful of lawmakers introduce new bills aimed at increasing the state’s already controversial wind generation tax. Yet lately, the bills disappear as quickly as they arise. The most recent, in February, aimed to raise the tax to $2 per megawatt hour and to tax utility-scale solar power as well. (The legislation included a tax credit for companies that use equipment made in Wyoming, a measure intended to lure manufacturers to the state, according to one of its sponsors.) The bill was withdrawn before coming to a vote.
At the local level, support appears stronger as well. In April, Carbon County’s five county commissioners voted unanimously to approve TB Flats, a 500-megawatt wind project in development by Chicago-based Invenergy.
At a public information session later that month for the Wyoming portion of the Gateway West transmission project—a 140-mile segment of new power lines—two of those commissioners, Bob Davis and John Johnson, mingled in cowboy garb among maps and posters detailing the transmission lines. Both men support wind development in their county, but cautiously so. “The long-term jobs aren’t really that significant,” says Davis, a rancher who protects eagle habitat on his property with a conservation easement from the Nature Conservancy. (Federal law protects bald and golden eagles, and wind farms can obtain “eagle take” permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to account for any killings of the raptors by turbines. Conservation easements are a means of balancing those deaths by proactively conserving the birds’ habitat elsewhere.)