The actions of a Florida-based energy company are proving to be a test case for a new law intended to protect what many believe is Oklahoma's most valuable military asset -- air space.
A News 9 investigation reveals the company, NextEra Energy, is putting up new wind turbines without the needed federal approval, in violation of a recently approved state law.
The law, which took effect in May, mandates that wind developers obtain either "no hazard" determinations for each turbine from the Federal Aviation Administration or work out a mitigation plan with the Department of Defense, and then submit notification of such with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, before construction may begin.
NextEra has not procured those approvals, and yet has gone ahead with construction.
"One, two, three, four," counted Tammy Huffstutlar, pointing to an array of wind turbines visible in a recent photograph that she took.
Tammy and her husband, Rick Huffstutlar, came to News 9 and showed us photos they've taken in the last couple of weeks of new turbines that have gone up near where they live in Hinton.
"These should not be up," Tammy stated.
NextEra, which has not yet responded to a request for comment, first filed plans for its Minco IV and Minco V wind farms back in 2016, and the FAA approved those. But the company held off on construction and let most of those approvals lapse, instead choosing to file revised project plans with the FAA in March 2018. Although some of the proposed turbines are sited very near those from the original plan, most are also taller and therefore require fresh evaluation for possible flight obstruction.
The amended project included 175 turbines, each of which is evaluated separately through the submission of a Form 7460-1. A check of the status of any of those evaluations today at the FAA's web site produced this statement: "This proposal has not yet been studied. Study outcomes will be posted at a later date."
The Huffstutlars say their photographs show that NextEra is blatantly disregarding the law.
"They're doing as they please," Tammy Huffstutlar said, "not what our Oklahoma laws state."
An aerial tour of the area in far southwestern Canadian County from Sky News 9 confirmed about two dozen turbines have been constructed, with still more under construction, despite the lack of corresponding 'no hazard' declarations from the federal government.
The FAA has no authority to halt construction, except in extreme cases of flight obstruction, and so NextEra is not violating federal law. However, with the passage of HB 3561 last session, the company would appear to violating state law.
"I have officially informed NextEra of this," said Mike Cooper, Chairman of the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, "[and told them] that we would be giving them a formal notice of not meeting the requirements of the law."
Under the new law, Cooper, in his capacity as Commission Chair, is responsible for facilitating communication between all of the vested parties -- the developer, the affected military bases, the FAA, and the Department of Defense. He says the point of the law was, first, to ensure public safety, and, second, to protect Oklahoma air space.
"Our number one military value asset in the state of Oklahoma is our air space," Cooper explained. "This is why this bill was developed."
Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Preuss, Director of Operations for the 80th Operations Support Squadron at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls is well aware of the new turbines NextEra has been constructing, as they are a potential hazard to the hundreds of student fighter pilots, from the US and 13 NATO allies, who train at Sheppard. In an emailed response to questions about NextEra's actions, Lt Col Preuss said, "it is extremely unusual for a company to build without completing the FAA process."
Lt Col Preuss says they are actively working on a mitigation agreement with NextEra, but cautioned that such agreements can take months, if not years, to complete. In the meantime, he says, the erection of these new turbines is a real concern.
"This area has seen rapid development in the last several years and the landscape looks vastly different than it did even two years ago, so much so that we are considering shutting down at least one of our routes, if the development expands as planned," said Preuss.
The Huffstutlars, Mike Cooper, and Lt Col Preuss are not the only ones concerned with NextEra's apparent decision to flout the law. Thursday afternoon, the chief of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Utility Regulation Unit, Jared Haines, sent a letter to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission's Public Utility Division, urging them "to investigate these serious allegations and to bring an enforcement action against NextEra for any violations discovered as a result of the investigation." Haines says NextEra could "liable for millions of dollars in fines."