Converse County Commissioners Jim Willox, Robert Short and Rick Grant – all wearing suits – huddled in a corner of the Douglas library, strategizing in low tones away from the proceedings a few feet away. In the hearing room, the all-male council stared at Douglas City Administrator Jonathan Teichert, while a stenographer typed up his testimony.
For all the seriousness and formality of the gathering, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Council’s final decision didn’t have much nuance.
Instead, on May 17 the council opted for a blanket cut of 25% from every entity’s request for impact assistance from the massive Cedar Springs wind farm that will break ground north of Douglas this summer. The surprise decision left local officials frustrated after months of negotiation and after they had carefully outlined the unmitigated impacts of the project.
The ISC, in the end, said it will disburse $8.2 million, a quarter less than the maximum it could have provided Converse and Natrona county governments to cover the impacts expected to roads, social services and law enforcement, among others.
Converse County itself will receive $1.6 million. At one point in the process, Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox hoped the county could receive $5.8 million for reconstruction of Highland Loop alone, but that was eliminated early on.
“It was disappointing,” Willox said of the ISC ruling. “We thought they would look closer at justifications.”
Douglas will receive $1.4 million. Back in March, the city thought it had a real chance at more than $2 million.
Teichert said that the 25% across-the-board cut is incredibly unfair, especially because it assumes each request had equal merit. He said that Douglas’ requests were exclusively for unmitigated impacts, and not every entity could honestly make that claim.
“I’m not happy at all with it, I think the whole thing was a sham,” he said of the ISC hearing. “We have to justify our ask to the cent, and then the council indiscriminately cuts 25% from everybody’s.”
Home to 15 of Wyoming’s 21 active oil drilling rigs, Converse County already has its fair share of heavy and oversized truck loads that beat up local roads. General traffic is high. Wake up at 4 a.m. and you’ll see a stream of lights glowing in the dawn, flowing north along WYO 59, the main artery to the oil fields.
Wind farm development will join the craziness this summer. NextEra’s 120 turbine, 400 megawatt Cedar Springs will take two years to build and will require 265 workers at peak in the summer of 2020.
With projects that size, communities can face real, often substantial, impacts. The ISC attempts to mitigate those impacts by directing NextEra money to those areas.
Given that the entirety of the project is in Converse County, and will therefore have the greatest impact on Converse County services, local officials expected to receive impact funds proportional to those impacts. According to NextEra’s permit, more than three quarters of the impacts will affect Converse County and its entities.
Following the ISC’s decision, 67% of the impact funds will come to the county.
AND MUFFED MODEL
Ideally, the negotiations between Converse and Natrona counties wouldn’t have been as contentious, and the two would have presented a united front to the ISC.
However, the two sides came to a stalemate after Converse County officials expressed incredulity with Natrona’s demands. Converse County Treasurer Joel Schell pointed to Bar Nunn’s request as particularly laughable, since he believed the community would have only negligible impacts from Cedar Springs.
The ISC awarded Bar Nunn $281,500.
Converse argued that impacts on Natrona and its municipalities would be minimal: Even if all 265 workers lived in Natrona, that’s a mere blip given larger Casper’s population and doesn’t warrant a huge amount of impact assistance.
But Natrona held firm, and the sides couldn’t come to an agreement.
That failure to come to terms automatically triggered the ISC’s impact funding model. The results of that model were, at best, flawed. For instance, the model recommended Lost Springs, – a town of four more than 40 miles east of the project – receive the majority ($1.8 million) of the funding.
Towns like Lost Springs, Rolling Hills and Glenrock benefited, while Converse County and Douglas saw numbers they believed were ridiculously low to handle their impacts. The unrealistic numbers spit out by the model made negotiation difficult.
Schell called the model a “travesty” and “a joke,” saying that no reasonable person would agree with the numbers it suggested.
Yet, the ISC model represented the ISC staff recommendation, which the ISC board was likely to give some credence. Because of that, despite their unfavorable position, Douglas and Converse agreed to negotiate and come to a memorandum of understanding with all affected entities. The model led to Converse and Douglas asking for millions less than they initially planned.
The MOU brought down some of the eye-opening figures, like Casper’s, down to more reasonable figures, Converse officials said. The Oil City, more than 60 miles from the project, was slated to receive $2.7 million from the model. Following the ISC decision, Casper received a tenth of the impact funds, at $817,500.
Lost Springs, with a population of four, will receive $256,ooo (3%), after not making any initial request.
Schell explained that the ISC isn’t doing its job.
“It’s inane,” he said. “The legal mandate from the legislature for the ISC is to look at the actual, evidence-based impacts and then make a judgement on how to prioritize those and allocate the money.
“There isn’t any sensible person that could look at the numbers that were allocated out and say, ‘These represent the actual impacts.’ They’re not meeting the mandate.”
The same entities will have to go through the whole process again for Cedar Springs phase III, which will bring more turbines farther north in the county.