Tough Talk As Oklahoma's Wind Industry Becomes A Political Target Though the wind industry was once a political darling in the state, some say Oklahoma can no longer afford the tax breaks that helped it thrive.

Tough Talk As Oklahoma's Wind Industry Becomes A Political Target

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The state of Oklahoma is known as an oil and gas state. But it's also a leading producer of wind power, and the nation's largest wind farm is under construction there. Now some politicians say the state can no longer afford the tax breaks that helped the industry take hold. Joe Wertz of Stateimpact reports.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Here's how contentious the wind industry debate has become in Oklahoma.


MARK MCBRIDE: I found a tracker.


WERTZ: This conversation is from a police body camera, and it alleges a plot straight out of a political thriller. State Representative Mark McBride told police he found a tracking device planted underneath his pickup truck.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Now, as to who you think it might be, who are you thinking about?

MCBRIDE: I pissed off a huge corporation. You know anything about wind farms?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Mm-hm (ph). I mean, just basic knowledge, but I know about them.

WERTZ: McBride says he might be a target because he supports increasing taxes on the wind industry. The industry denies any wrongdoing. The case is under investigation. Oklahoma started wooing wind companies in the early '90s with generous tax breaks. But the cost of these incentives ballooned as the industry grew. Lawmakers started missing the money as oil prices crashed and state budget gaps widened. On a local News9 TV show called "Hot Seat," lawmaker McBride said budget cuts were already hurting public workers and forcing teachers to quit. He said the wind industry should pay more.


MCBRIDE: In my opinion, it's time that this industry stepped up and quit worrying about their Wall Street investors and put something back into the state instead of continuing to take away from it.

WERTZ: So an industry that was once a political darling is now at the center of a capital catfight. Battle lines are drawn in dueling press conferences and TV ads.


FRANK KEATING: When I served as governor, I signed a bill that was supposed to jump-start the wind industry, help the state and create jobs. It didn't happen.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Big oil still doesn't want to pay their fair share and wants to run wind out of the state.

WERTZ: For many of Oklahoma's local governments, though, wind incentives are essential.

JUNIOR SALISBURY: Well, this is our records room back here.

WERTZ: The Dewey County Courthouse is one of the state's newest. The offices are spacious with fresh carpet and shiny wood trim. County Commissioner Junior Salisbury is excited to play tour leader.

SALISBURY: Yeah, I'm pretty proud of our little courthouse here. I really, really am.

WERTZ: The new courthouse was built with a three-quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase that also upgraded the jail and renovated the fairgrounds. Officials figured it would take 25 years to pay it off. And at first, Salisbury says, the county was barely meeting its payments.

SALISBURY: Then we got a wind farm come in and our oil and gas picked up. And in under 4 1/2 years it was paid for.

WERTZ: Salisbury says wind farms also bring a lot of money to his local schools. But he's grown more and more frustrated with lawmakers over the years as they've steadily ended incentives for the wind industry. He's pushing lawmakers to block a new tax on wind-produced electricity championed by Oklahoma's Republican governor and groups backed by the state's influential oil industry.

SALISBURY: I'll promise you. I'm going to get in there, and I'm going to fight harder and harder to swing this back our way.

WERTZ: The rollback is causing some wind companies to reconsider. Sean Logsdon is with E.ON Climate and Renewables, which signed lease agreements with more than a hundred Oklahoma landowners.

SEAN LOGSDON: Those landowners were incredibly disappointed. And me being from Oklahoma, you know, I was incredibly disappointed.

WERTZ: E.ON invested millions laying the groundwork for a new wind farm project here. But...

LOGSDON: We do have limited capital and, you know, we just couldn't take the risk in Oklahoma.

WERTZ: So the company canceled that project and spent the money on a brand-new wind farm in South Texas. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.


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