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Scott Pruitt’s successor as Oklahoma AG opposes mega-wind project

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Scott Pruitt’s successor in Oklahoma is showing the fossil fuel industry that he cares as much about it as the state’s former attorney general. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) appointed Mike Hunter as attorney general in February after Pruitt resigned from the position to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration.

In June, Hunter, along with 11 other attorneys general and one governor from right-leaning states, sent a letter threatening to sue California’s insurance commissioner over his decision to call for insurance companies that operate in the state to disclose their fossil fuel investments and divest from coal companies.

As attorney general, Hunter’s predecessor also held a soft spot for coal. When Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co. (OG&E) sought to extend the life of its Sooner coal plant by spending $500 million on pollution scrubbers, regulators rejected the idea. But Pruitt successfully intervened on its behalf. After twice rejecting OG&E plans to add the scrubbers, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission changed its mind in April and backed the utility’s approach after Pruitt filed a supportive statement.

Another major electric utility in Oklahoma, American Electric Power Co. subsidiary Public Service Co. of Oklahoma (PSO), has taken a different approach than Pruitt-backed OG&E. The company didn’t fight the EPA’s power to impose a regional haze compliance plan on the state, as did OG&E and Pruitt. PSO developed plans to satisfy the regulation, agreeing to retire two of its coal-fired units under an agreement with EPA, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Sierra Club.

Along with coal plant retirements, PSO is making big plans to invest in wind energy. The utility, along with fellow American Electric Power subsidiary Southwestern Electric Power Co., plan to purchase a 2,000-megawatt wind farm in Oklahoma upon its completion.

Hunter, after threatening a lawsuit against a California official over his stance on coal, is challenging PSO’s plans to purchase the $4.5 billion wind farm, known as the Wind Catcher project. It would be one of the largest — if not the largest — in the nation if it is successfully completed, as scheduled, in 2020.

Hunter’s office, which serves as the state’s official consumer advocate, contends the electric power produced by the Wind Catcher project is not needed and believes the cost of the project will unfairly raise the monthly bills of electric customers in the state.

Hunter also called on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates electric and gas utility companies in the state, to dismiss the application due to PSO’s “failure to either utilize the commission’s competitive bidding rules or to request commission preapproval of the Wind Catcher Project before beginning construction, as required under Oklahoma law.”

“The rules on competitive bidding establish a ‘fair, just, and reasonable process that best serves the public interest of all electricity consumers’ and ‘complement and improve the state’s economic growth’ by ‘making the most efficient use of Oklahoma’s coal, natural gas, and power generation and transmission assets,” Hunter’s office wrote in last Friday’s motion to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Aside from Oklahoma, American Electric Power is not aware of any opposition from officials in the other states — Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas — where it filed an application to receive permission to purchase the Wind Catcher project, company spokesperson Melissa McHenry said.

Even though it’s better known as an oil and gas producing state, Oklahoma ranks third in the nation with 6,645 megawatts of wind capacity. The state has 41 wind farms online — many of them in the wind-rich panhandle — that house 3,400 wind turbines, according to the American Wind Energy Association. These wind projects provide about one-fourth of the state’s net electric power generation.

For the Wind Catcher project, Southwestern Electric Power, which operates in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, will purchase 70 percent of the project and PSO will purchase 30 percent. The wind farm is currently under construction by Invenergy, a power generation development company.

In it July 31 application with state regulators, PSO, which serves 545,000 electric customers in the state, requested pre-approval of the wind project and permission to recover its portion of the costs of the project from its customers. The utility’s share of the project is valued at about $1.4 billion.

PSO touts Wind Catcher as a project that will produce “extraordinary” savings for its customers. The project “must be completed in a time frame that wouldn’t be feasible with the process required by the competitive bidding rules,” the company said in a statement. “Additionally, adherence to the competitive bidding process wouldn’t be feasible due to the unique nature of the project and lack of comparable options in the market.”

The project will save PSO customers more than $2 billion, the company said. It also will provide diversity to the company’s generation fleet by adding a wind resource to its six natural gas plants and two coal plants. “We believe the Commission will allow the case to move forward and ultimately support the project moving forward so these benefits can be realized,” it said.

PSO emphasized it has a strong track record of following the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s competitive bidding rules. Commission rules also allow utilities to request a waiver of those rules, which is what the company has done in this case.

In addition to the Wind Catcher project, American Electric Power has indicated plans to add a total of about 7,300 megawatts of new renewable energy generation resources between now and 2030 to diversify its power production portfolio. The company also has cut carbon dioxide emissions from its generating facilities by more than 44 percent since 2000.

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