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Land commissioner seeks $25M from Air Force over wind farm reduction

WASHINGTON – Decrying “military tyranny,” New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn is asking the Air Force to pay the state $25 million he says it will lose due to military flight training plans that threaten to dramatically downsize a deal to bring more than 100 wind turbines to Torrance County.

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn

Oregon-based Avangrid Renewables, which was planning the second phase of El Cabo wind farm in the area, wrote to Dunn last week lamenting that the Air Force’s use of a military training route called IR-33 that traverses Torrance County would prevent it from building 61 of 114 planned turbines on state trust lands. The result would be a greatly reduced second phase of the project, Dunn said.

Mark Stacy, Avangrid’s director of business development, wrote Dunn on Feb. 22 saying that the Department of Defense had voiced objections to the wind turbines in some parts of the project because of height issues, which could delay Federal Aviation Administration approval. The area in question is in the vicinity of Encino, Willard and Corona.

“This indefinite (potentially permanent) delay would be considered by us to be a fatal flaw to the project, as we simply cannot build turbines in locations that do not have FAA approval,” Stacy wrote. “Therefore, without reaching some negotiated solution with DOD, this entire project area (much of which is on state land) would be useless for wind energy development.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

On Tuesday, Dunn wrote to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson – a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from New Mexico – asking the Air Force to replace revenue from the loss of turbines deemed to interfere with Air Force flight patterns. He noted that money generated from leased State Land Office lands support New Mexico’s schools and hospitals, including Carrie Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque. In fiscal year 2017, the State Land Office collected $664 million.

“I believe that the military should not be uniquely and unduly burdening state trust lands by effectively prohibiting the investment-backed activities of state trust land leases unless it is willing to pay appropriate compensation,” Dunn wrote.

Ann Stefanik, chief of media operation for the Air Force, told the Journal the Air Force tries not to intrude on private industry.

“Our primary focus is the Air Force mission,” Stefanik said. “When possible, we work with industry and government partners to allow for development that makes sense for all parties.”

Wind farm mapIn a press statement accompanying release of his letter to Wilson, Dunn – who is running for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian candidate this year – criticized the military restrictions that Avangrid says scuttled the deal.

“This federal power grab not only impacts revenue to the trust, but completely disregards state’s rights and individual liberties,” Dunn said. “This is military tyranny.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who is running for re-election to the seat Dunn is seeking, said he hopes that “everyone in this particular case will be able to reach an agreement.” Without commenting directly on Dunn’s request for financial compensation from the Air Force, Heinrich noted his role in the settlement of a long-standing dispute three years ago that allowed the SunZia power transmission line through parts of White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

“But this isn’t just about Avangrid Renewables or SunZia; this is about New Mexico diversifying its economy, charting a course for a more prosperous future, and sending a message that we are open for business,” Heinrich said in a statement.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat running for governor, also declined to comment on Dunn’s compensation request but voiced hope that a deal can still be reached.

“The renewable industry is incredibly important to diversifying and growing New Mexico’s economy along with funding essential public education and health services,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “I expect the Department of Defense to work productively with the state in order to both accomplish its national security mission and accommodate the growing wind industry in our state.”

Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, which aims to protect and expand the Albuquerque Air Force Base’s missions, said Avangrid, the State Land Office and the Pentagon should continue negotiations on the wind farm.

“In my over 30 years of working with the Air Force in New Mexico, I have always found them to go out of their way to work well with communities,” McCorkle said. “The Air Force works very hard at finding solutions that work for citizens in communities while ensuring that pilots train and receive the critical skills they would need in combat. It appears to me that there is quite a bit of negotiation yet to occur.”

Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Avangrid Renewables, said late Wednesday that his company would continue negotiations with the Defense Department.

“While we appreciate the commissioner’s strong support and acknowledgment of the tremendous economic development opportunities that occur when we build wind farms, and his duty to maximize revenues for state lands, we are also respectful of the Department of Defense’s and FAA’s missions,” Copleman said. “We are going to continue to work with the DOD clearinghouse to help balance the protection of national security with responsible and reasonable siting of our turbines to benefit all parties. ”