Washington (AP) - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed Tuesday to spur offshore wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean by expediting permits and identifying promising areas for wind power.
At a speech in Baltimore, Salazar said he will institute a "smart permitting process" that could result in leases issued within two years, instead of seven years or more.
Salazar said he and other federal officials will work with governors in 11 Atlantic Coast states to identify promising areas for wind development. If no serious problems are identified, leases could be issued late next year or in early 2012.
Salazar said he hopes to pursue offshore wind power along the Atlantic Coast in the same way officials are pushing solar power in the Southwest.
"These are areas with high wind potential and with fewer potential conflicts with competing uses," he said. "If we are wise with our planning, we can help build a robust and environmentally responsible offshore renewable energy program that creates jobs here at home."
The announcement comes as Internet giant Google and other investors have pledged up to $5 billion for a network of deepwater transmission lines to bring power from offshore wind farms to homes and businesses along the East Coast. The first phase is expected to cost $1.8 billion and run 150 miles in federal waters from New Jersey to Delaware.
Salazar and developers of the nation's first offshore wind farm signed a lease last month launching the 130-turbine Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast, following an eight-year federal review.
Salazar called the Cape Wind lease "historic," but he said a more efficient permitting process is needed to fully harness potentially vast economic and energy benefits of wind power off the Atlantic Coast.
The Cape Wind project faced intense opposition from two Indian tribes and some environmentalists and residents, who argue the project threatens marine life as well as maritime traffic and industry. They also say windmills could mar the ocean view.
Salazar said the project's developers can protect local culture and beauty while expanding the nation's supply of renewable energy.
Conservation groups and a group representing the wind industry hailed the proposal to speed review of wind projects.
"Ocean wind power is the good witch to the bad witch of ocean oil drilling," said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana. "People need jobs and energy. Ocean wind power, unlike ocean oil drilling, is a great way to do both."
Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said streamlining the multistep permitting process for offshore wind projects was essential.
Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said the plan showed that "the offshore wind industry in the United States is open for business."
Under the initiative, the Interior Department will work with state officials over the next two months to identify possible sites for wind projects in six states: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A preliminary list is expected in January.
Additional sites will be identified next year in five more states: New York, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
States would receive 27 percent of total revenues collected by the federal government for projects in federal waters, at least 3 miles offshore.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said his state was solidifying its position as a national leader in creating clean energy jobs that will reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and protect the environment.
Wind energy projects "will bring thousands of jobs to our region that cannot be outsourced," Cardin said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley noted that the federal government has accepted state planning recommendations for a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, Md.
"We are waiting for proposals to come back on that," O'Malley said.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Baltimore contributed to this report.