DEL RIO, Texas — Long before a Chinese spy balloon captivated and spooked the U.S. public, Kyle Bass foresaw what he deemed another foreign danger slated for skies above the Texas-Mexico border: wind turbines.
Dozens of them, roughly 700 feet (213 meters) tall — as big as San Antonio's tallest skyscraper — were set to sprout across thousands of scrubby acres near the pristine Devils River. Protests that a wind farm would harm a sensitive ecosystem in Texas flopped, but when attention turned to a Chinese billionaire behind the project, state lawmakers raced to pull the plug.
“Drumming up the ire against the national security issues was easier than the environmental issues,” said Bass, whose Monarch Ranch near the Mexico border and the planned wind farm is a flight path for migrating birds and butterflies.
U.S.-China ties are strained amid growing tensions over security and trade. In nearly a dozen statehouses and Congress, a decades-old worry about foreign land ownership has spiked since the U.S. military shot down a Chinese spy balloon last month after it traversed the skies from Alaska to South Carolina.
Local fears about national security initially yielded a victory for Bass and other Texas landowners in Val Verde County. But in a twist, plans for some of the tallest wind turbines in the country are back on — causing whiplash here in the rural borderlands, hurt feelings and testing of the limits of environmental action against renewable projects proliferating across the country.
While President Joe Biden wants more wind and solar power to fight climate change, local resistance is growing in places asked to live with towering turbines. Some East Coast residents pushing back against thousands of them embody the opposition as the U.S. pursues deploying enough wind energy offshore by 2030 to power 10 million homes.
In South Texas, worries over the wind farm being developed by GH America Energy, which is controlled by Chinese billionaire Sun Guangxin, fast torpedoed the project in 2021, previewing the wave of states now considering limits on foreign land ownership. Texas lawmakers altogether banned Chinese companies from accessing the state's power grid and other critical infrastructure, forcing the aspiring wind farm developers to sell their interest. The Spanish renewable energy company Greenalia bought it, wiping away national security concerns.
And with that, state politicians vanished from the fight. Without legislation to protect Devils River, the project could get underway later this year.
Landowners say ecological dangers still linger over the prospect of 46 wind turbines suddenly springing up in the county of barely 48,000 residents. Scores of whirring blades could endanger migratory birds that fly through the area seasonally and disrupt the flyways of monarch butterflies and Mexican free-tailed bats, millions of which call the county's Fern Cave home every every year.
The Devils River attracts thousands of visitors annually to the pristine white waters that flow for about 40 miles in Val Verde County, creating panoramic canyon views and offering a lens on ancient rock art. On a recent afternoon in February in Dolan Falls, cascading water was the only sound in a hollow of peaceful greenery. Fish swam through the waters, an unexpected sight in the middle of Texas desert.
“If you look at the proliferation of wind farms across Texas, we haven’t said a word about 99% of it,” said Jeff Francell, a director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas, which has come out against the project known as Blue Hills on Carma Ranch.
He recalls just one other time his group opposed a wind farm in Texas, where more than 10,000 turbines already spin, more than anywhere in the country. “It really just comes down to sensitive locations," he said.
But those arguments have struggled to change minds, and even in Del Rio, not everyone opposes the turbines.
“They don’t offend me and they don’t bother me,” said Beau Nettleton, an elected Val Verde County commissioner whose own property would be adjacent to the wind farm. “I personally think they look kind of neat.”
Elsewhere in Del Rio, the rebooted battle has soured ranchers who found powerful allies just two years ago when the property was under Chinese control. Now those locals feel forgotten. Doug Meyer, who manages Monarch Ranch, said he would feel left behind if the wind farm is built now that national security concerns are resolved.
VAL VERDE FORGOTTEN?
America's biggest oil and gas state is moving aggressively against wind projects elsewhere while standing by at Carma Ranch. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is backing efforts to box out wind and solar development from economic incentives in Texas, which critics say would undercut renewables and boost fossil fuels.
Proposals to create zoning limits for wind energy would not affect projects already under construction and a proposed permitting process would allow ventures underway to advance while companies seek permits.
Republicans who railed against the China-backed wind farm never leaned into environmental concerns.
“The most compelling part of the previous case I was involved in was the national security implications of the ownership,” said Republican Will Hurd, the former Texas congressman who represented Val Verde County and whose aides say is considering a 2024 presidential run.
U.S. officials reviewed concerns about the location being too near Laughlin Air Force Base and determined it wasn't a threat.
A person familiar with GH America Energy’s operations confirmed the company sold its interest in the wind farm after the new Texas law prohibited it from developing the project. The person declined to be publicly identified because they weren’t authorized to speak about the company.
Greenalia said in a statement the company was “highly committed” to respecting local biodiversity and that it was following existing laws and either obtained or are in the process of obtaining all necessary permits. It did not respond to questions about whether it had completed an environmental impact study, which Texas does not require.
Devils River headwaters run up against the property of Alice Ball Strunk, who owns nearly 50 square miles of land split between two parcels. She's also president of the Devils River Conservancy, which has led opposition to wind turbines in Val Verde County for years.
Rooms at her Hudspeth River Ranch go for upward of $650 a night and allow vacationers to isolate in the vast, quiet greenery extending to the river's springs.
Sitting in her home library surrounded by hunting trophies, Strunk worries light pollution and the sight of turbines would hurt ecotourism.
“It doesn’t seem right that someone who isn’t even a citizen here will profit over something that will reduce the neighbors’ values,” she said.
Such arguments ring familiar to Erin Baker, a professor of industrial engineering at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who studies wind farm developments and said environmental concerns are common.
“I think there also, unfortunately, is a little bit of — and you are not supposed to say it — but NIMBYism,” said Baker, referring to not-in-my-backyard opposition. “People don’t want change.”
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