WIND:

Interior to speed new offshore leasing in mid-Atlantic

The Interior Department today announced that it hopes to offer new offshore wind leases in the Atlantic by the end of 2011 by conducting front-end environmental reviews of the breeziest federal waters and collaborating with several coastal states.

At a news conference today at Baltimore's Fort McHenry, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department will identify wind energy areas (WEAs) ripe for offshore development; conduct environmental reviews; and improve coordination with local, state and federal agencies to accelerate the approval of new leases.

Salazar also said a regulatory change at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) would shave as much as an entire year off the leasing process in cases where there is only one interested bidder.

"To fully harness the economic and energy benefits of our nation's vast Atlantic wind potential, we need to implement a smart permitting process that is efficient, thorough and unburdened by needless red tape," Salazar said.

There are already a number of wind leasing applications in the queue at Interior, Salazar said, including three in New Jersey and one in Delaware.

The department's "Smart from the Start" initiative hopes to build on the success of a Bureau of Land Management study of solar power potential and environmental impacts on federal lands in the Southwest. Those efforts, Salazar said, have helped facilitate a slew of commercial projects in recent months that will create new jobs and provide carbon-free renewable energy.

Salazar said Interior will also take notes from the agency's review of Cape Wind Associates LLC's lease proposal near Cape Cod, Mass., which was finalized last month.

"What's important today is we are learning from the lessons of the Cape Wind project and also the lessons we have developed in the solar energy effort in the southwest U.S.," Salazar said.

Beginning in early 2011, Interior will identify wind energy areas off the coasts of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, conduct National Environmental Policy Act reviews, and coordinate with other federal agencies to identify any conflicting interests, Interior said.

Additional WEAs will be identified in 2011 for areas off the coasts of New York, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The process will shave considerable time and resources needed for private developers to initiate a wind project, Deputy Secretary David Hayes said.

"We think this regulatory approach is going to help advance the investor interest in wind," Hayes said, adding that Interior would collaborate with agencies including the Defense Department, Federal Aviation Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Coast Guard to confirm the most developable areas.

"We will have an unprecedented amount of information that we can then provide to the investing public," Hayes said. "We will say, 'Who wants to come and lease in these areas?'"

Salazar said Interior officials have also been working with Atlantic states to identify WEAs, marshaling the resources of eight state-federal task forces and the 11-state Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium.

By January 2011, Interior will issue a request for interest in developing the new WEAs. Maryland's request for information was issued last month.

'Nurturing environment'

The American Wind Energy Association applauded Interior's move and said streamlined permitting would be essential for developers to tap vast renewable potential in federal waters.

"Efforts to rationalize the multi-step permitting process for offshore wind projects are essential for Eastern states to be able to take advantage of this excellent resource," AWEA CEO Denise Bode said. "As the pipeline of projects begins to move forward more rapidly, the environmental and economic benefits of offshore wind, including manufacturing facilities and associated jobs, can be realized."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said the Interior plan would create much needed investment certainty for offshore wind developers, but that lawmakers must also extend production tax credits set to expire in 2012.

"A major role of government is to provide a nurturing environment for job creation," he said, cautioning that offshore projects are not set to begin construction until 2014.

"We need predictability and we need certainty," Carper said. "A wind production credit that ends in 2012 does us very little good."

Interior's leasing announcement is welcome progress as the nation continues to cope with environmental accidents such as the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a major coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, said Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director for the Sierra Club.

"It's encouraging to see the Interior Department taking serious steps to further accelerate the rapid development of America's abundant clean energy resources," Nilles said. "The Atlantic Coast holds tremendous potential for the kind of large-scale clean energy projects that will create jobs, breathe new life into our economy and help make us a leader in the global clean energy marketplace."

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