Senate tentatively approves wind farm restrictions

Posted June 16, 2016 5:19 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2016 7:43 p.m. EDT

— By a 41-5 vote Thursday, state senators gave preliminary approval to ban wind energy projects in areas of eastern North Carolina used for military training flights. But some senators say the ban is too broad and will block two projects already in the federal permitting process.

Sponsor Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, reminded his colleagues that the military is the state's second-largest industry and that future rounds of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, are likely in the next few years.

Unless the state takes action to protect low-level training corridors currently in use, Brown said, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point could be at risk in the next round.

"Protecting those bases is probably one of the more important things we can do to protect our economy in this state," he said. "You talk to any military person in this state, and they’ll tell you — if their base or post can no longer train, they’re not viable and they’re subject to closure. That’s the No. 1 issue."

"It’s not a matter of 'if' when you talk about BRAC, it’s a matter of 'when,'" agreed Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne. "It’s inevitable."

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, agreed but said the areas of the proposed ban are so large that they would block wind farm development in much of her economically disadvantaged northeastern district. She said she believes the proposal goes further than the corridors mapped out by the Department of Defense.

"I don’t think it has to be an either/or. It can be a both/and," she said.

The bill would grandfather in the Amazon wind farm in Perquimans County, but it would halt work on an estimated $450 million project in Chowan County and would probably halt another $250 million wind project in Tyrrell.County. Both are in the federal permitting pipeline.

Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, said those companies have already invested millions of dollars to get those projects underway.

"Anytime, Sen. Brown, that we in local government, state government, start interjecting new regulations in the middle of a process, that creates instability, and it could jeopardize millions of dollars," Ford said. "Do you believe there is a balance that can be struck with protecting those explanations but also protecting those small businesses that have begun a process to bring wind power to those regions?"

Brown responded that those investors knew the state was in the process of drawing up maps for a ban and therefore shouldn’t have invested money until they saw the finished product.

"They, I think, had an obligation to make sure they didn’t try to permit something," Brown said. "They should’ve known, if they’d asked, where those sensitive areas were. I think some of them tried to get ahead of that, and that’s unfortunate."

Sen. Ronald Rabin, R-Harnett, argued the stakes of the bill are much higher than economic concerns.

"You can’t train for war without training ground," Rabin said. "It's nice to worry about BRAC and what we're going to lose, but the fact is the defense of our nation is at stake here."

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesman for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, called House Bill 763 an "unnecessary regulatory burden on the development of clean energy in rural counties."

"We have a new wind permitting process that was developed in 2013 in House Bill 484 that no project has gone through yet," Chicurel-Bayard said, "but it allows for the military to weigh in as well as other stakeholders.”

The final Senate vote is expected Monday night. After that, the bill goes back to the House for concurrence.