Interior Department finalizes offshore energy rules

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday issued long-delayed guidelines for leasing offshore areas for renewable energy production, opening the door to wind power generation off the coasts.

Wind turbines are seen in a wind park 23 km (14 miles) off the coast of Ijmuiden September 3, 2007. REUTERS/ Michael Kooren

The department’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) will issue two types of leases for development of renewable resources off U.S. coasts. Long-term commercial leases with terms of up to about 25 years will cover construction and energy production for offshore projects.

Limited leases for research and development will allow data collection and technology testing over the span of about five years.

With U.S. President Barack Obama pledging to double renewable energy production in three years, the Interior Department has been working to increase clean energy output on public lands.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department is ready to move forward with offshore wind development, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean, where wind power can be more easily harnessed and there is access to the electricity grid.

“The technology for offshore wind is here and now, it’s not a technology that has to be developed,” Salazar told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“I expect we’re going to see wind turbine projects with significant power generation in the next several years off the Atlantic,” he added.

Salazar said the offshore renewable energy rules were in limbo for three years because the Bush administration did not make clean energy a priority and due to an unsettled jurisdiction dispute with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Interior reached an agreement with FERC last month giving the department exclusive jurisdiction over offshore wind and solar energy.

As these details were being worked out dozens of wind companies had offshore projects waiting to get the green light to move ahead.

“Our hope is that now that we have these rules in place and these companies know the rules of the road that they are going to come in with their applications and we will get moving,” Salazar said.

Chris Wissemann, managing director of Deepwater Wind, agreed with Salazar.

“This is fantastic news. Until now, we have been jostling at the starting gate but the gate has been moving away and we were never able to get to the gate. Now we are at the gate,” Wissemann said.

The rules would require commercial lease holders to pay $3 per acre annually until power generation begins. Limited leases would also have a $3-per-acre annual rental fee.

Interior is currently considering whether to give final approval to offshore wind energy project Cape Wind off the coast of Massachusetts, which aims to provide power for 400,000 homes but has drawn powerful opponents including Sen. Ted Kennedy and other residents of coastline communities.

The project would consist of 130 wind turbines over 24 square miles in Nantucket Sound, within view of popular Cape Cod resorts. Cape Wind began its approval process in 2000.

“These rules will help avoid the years of delay that we have gone through ... and make it a lot easier for others after us,” said Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind.

Salazar said he would not comment on the status of the Cape Wind project because the application is “still in process.”

Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Christian Wiessner