U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a major step toward the development of wind turbine fields off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
At a news conference in Baltimore with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Salazar said federal environmental reviews of four designated "wind energy areas" off the coast have found "no significant environmental impact" from the construction and operation of turbines. The general finding does not confer approval for any specific project, but the department expects to move ahead with lease sales this year.
The areas, designated last year by the departments of energy and the interior, are located off AtlanticCity, N.J., Rehoboth Beach, Del., Ocean City, Md., and Virginia Beach, Va. Calling their potential wind energy "staggering, Salazar said, "No developer should have to wait nine or 10 years to get a lease."
Interior is streamlining its process for renewable energy leases, he said. The department now describes its mission as "protecting our great outdoors and powering our future."
The decision offers immediate hope for a demonstration project in state waters off Cape May, which developers hope to expand to federal waters on the outer continental shelf. The new ruling opens up portions of the OCS for exactly that sort of commercial expansion.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) called the decision "a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win for New Jersey." The state will be able to develop "homegrown clean energy jobs," he said. "Instead of risking oil spills and public health, it will create jobs, clean up our air and move America to a clean energy future."
"Harnessing the wind blowing off our shores will allow us to power American homes with clean, domestic energy – and create tens of thousands of badly-needed jobs in the process," said Kit Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Tapping into the power of offshore wind off of New Jersey is vital to getting our state and the nation off fossil fuels without creating more pollution," added Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey. He pointed to a showing the Department of Energy's "conservative goal of developing 54 gigawatts of offshore wind power would be the pollution reduction equivalent of taking 18 million cars off the road.
That assumes no further increases in fossil fuel burning, blamed for the rise in greenhouse gasses linked to global warming. But Salazar firmly placed wind power in the Obama Administration's "all of the above" energy strategy, which includes additional fossil fuel development.
Pressured by congressional Republicans, the administration recently rejected a route for a new pipeline to transport dirtier Canadian tar sands oil through the center of the country to the Gulf of Mexico, a project opposed by environmentalists and the state of Nebraska. But the administration left the door open for approving a revised route after the November election.
Offshore wind is not without its own controversies, with some environmentalists questioning the effects of turbine fields on migratory birds and marine life. Other skeptics point to the current high cost of offshore wind power development compared to established technologies.