WASHINGTON— The Interior Department has finalized sweeping rules that clear the way for the first offshore wind turbines to be erected along the Atlantic Coast, the most aggressive move yet from an administration that hopes to shift the nation’s offshore
The rules will set long-awaited guidelines for offshore leases, easements and royalty payments, which the Bush administration worked on for years but did not complete. Without the guidelines, potential wind projects in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and several other coastal states could not begin construction.
The department will announce the rules Wednesday, Interior Department officials said, and President Barack Obama will mention them in his Earth Day appearance at an Iowa wind turbine factory.
Offshore wind power is currently used to generate electricity in Europe, where land for traditional onshore turbines is hard to come by. But there are no offshore wind farms operating in the U.S.
The most prominent proposed development would be built on Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod. That project has been opposed by the Kennedy family and others in part because it would be visible from Martha’s Vineyard and other scenic areas.
The new rules reflect the administration’s desire to develop alternative energy sources to offset the need for additional offshore drilling for oil and gas. Last year, as gas prices soared, Obama and his Republican opponent, John McCain, both agreed to consider the expansion of offshore drilling, including along the California coast.
But since taking office, Obama has delayed a Bush administration plan to expand drilling while the Interior Department has focused on developing offshore wind programs. The department recently estimated that offshore wind turbines could someday supply enough electricity to meet current U.S. demand.
“There are many states, especially along the Atlantic seaboard, that are ready to move fast forward with this,” Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said in a recent interview, adding that he sees offshore wind as having “significant potential” to round out an energy policy that includes clean-coal research, land-based wind and solar energy generation, and potentially more offshore drilling.
Heading into this Earth Day, Obama and his supporters have pledged themselves a goal of combating climate change all over the world.
Offshore wind is especially attractive to some because the wind blows stronger and more consistently at sea. More importantly, turbines off the Atlantic Coast—and, eventually, the Great Lakes and deeper waters off California—would lie close to the population centers that use the most electricity. That would reduce the need to string power lines from turbines on the Great Plains to population centers.
But offshore wind turbines cost more than traditional wind turbines. In addition, technology limits turbines to shallower waters such as those found off the East Coast, which has less powerful winds.
The administration is trying to change that. The Energy Department plans to spend economic stimulus funds on research to improve and test offshore turbine blades.
“To the extent that you can improve the reliability of the operation, the operating costs of offshore wind go down,” said Matt Rogers, who oversees the department’s stimulus spending. First, the government needs to help get offshore wind projects up and running.
The new rules are “an absolute necessity” for that development, said Michael Olsen, a former Interior official who now lobbies for wind- and other energy-industry clients at Bracewell and Giuliani in Washington. “No project can go in the water without them.”
Developers have also proposed projects in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Pacific Ocean, which boasts some of the nation’s strongest offshore wind. But those deep-water projects would be more expensive and would require the turbines to be built on floating platforms.
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