The Obama administration took another step Monday toward opening the Mid-Atlantic coast for offshore wind development, but in the process slashed Maryland's potential stake in the developing new energy industry by more than half.
Pointing to concerns about shipping safety, the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement reduced the area off Ocean City where industrial wind turbines might be placed from 206 square nautical miles to 94 square nautical miles. Turbines could be placed from 10 nautical miles off the beach to 27 nautical miles out to sea.
The agency disclosed the Maryland offshore reduction in a generally upbeat draft report assessing possible environmental and other impacts from leasing waters off New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia for wind development. It said the Coast Guard had recommended removing a swath of potential Outer Continental Shelf leasing blocks because they were in a path generally taken by ships entering Delaware Bay from the south. The Coast Guard may request an even wider shipping safety corridor after further study, the report added, noting that the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia are among the busiest in the nation.
Ian Hines, spokesman for the Maryland Energy Administration, said the reduction was no surprise and shouldn't affect the O'Malley administration's push to generate substantial amounts of electricity from hundreds of offshore wind turbines.
"It's still more than enough space, we think, to do what we were hoping to do," said Hines. State officials have talked about developing enough offshore turbines to generate 400 to 600 megawatts of power and possible even one gigawatt.
The federal agency's action prompted mixed reaction from proponents of offshore wind. Mike Tidwell of Chesapeake Climate Action Network called the reduction of the Maryland area "unfortunate" and appealed to O'Malley and Obama administrations to find some way to open other offshore waters for potential wind turbine leasing.
"We have to broaden the horizon for wind, not lessen it," he said.
Sean Garron of Environment Maryland said that group was disappointed by the reduction as well, but suggested the federal action could help speed offshore leasing by removing any potentially controversial turbines sites.
"I'd rather they were being cautious than not," he said.
Industry officials welcomed the federal action, saying it's in line with the Obama administration's vow to expedite permitting offshore wind farms. The seven to nine years now projected to obtain a permit to put a turbine offshore could be shaved by two years if the environmental assessment is approved and the Interior agency finds there's no significant impact, said Jim Lanard,president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition.
But Gwynn Crichton with The Nature Conservancy said that while federal officials seem to have culled all available information on the offshore ecosystem, much is still not known about the habitat and migration of birds, bats, dolphins, whales and sea turtles along the mid-Atlantic coast. Crichton said that "significant data gaps … must be addressed to responsibly site turbines offshore once leases are granted."
Peter D. Mandelstam, president of NRG Bluewater Wind, said the report advances his New Jersey-based company's uncontested bid to develop 450 megawatts' of electric generating capacity in 153 square nautical miles off the Delaware coast.
He was more cautious about prospects off Maryland now that the area there has been reduced. Mandelstam said Bluewater Wind and other developers who'd expressed interest there likely would have to review the sites still available and adjust their plans. And he pointed out that experience with offshore wind farms in Europe suggests turbines need to be placed farther apart than in the past to maximize their power generation.