The US Secretary of the Interior previously announced a “Smart From the Start” initiative for Atlantic offshore wind development that is anticipated to dramatically reduce timelines for related environmental permitting. As part of this initiative, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) has issued a draft (Draft EA) of a proposed environmental assessment (EA) that considers the potential environmental impact (including impacts of related site assessment activities such as the installation and operation of meteorological towers and buoys) and the socioeconomic effects of issuing renewable energy leases in designated Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) offshore New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

These specific WEAs were identified by BOEMRE after consultation with other federal agencies and related state renewable energy task forces. A Notice of Intent (NOI) to issue the Draft EA was published in February of this year. More than 40 comments were received in response to the NOI, including comments by other federal departments and agencies (e.g., the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Environmental Protection Agency), environmental groups (including Ocean Conservancy, Clean Ocean Action, Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council), various fishing and shipping interests, offshore wind developers (e.g., NRG Bluewater, Deepwater Wind and the Offshore Wind Development Coalition), and others such as the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Draft EA is not intended to address the actual development of wind energy facilities under leases in the designated WEAs; rather, it is intended to address BOEMRE’s decisions to issue leases in these WEAs, as well as the related lessee’s initial site assessment activities to determine the appropriateness of wind energy development at a particular lease location, such as installation of meteorological towers and/or buoys. If BOEMRE determines that the proposed EA adequately considers the environmental consequences of the activities proposed in the lessee’s Site Assessment Plan (SAP), then no further analysis under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) would be required before the SAP is approved. Subsequent development (including construction and operation) of wind energy facilities would require further site-specific and project-specific NEPA analysis for environmental impacts.

Some sources estimate that the proposed EA may shave up to two years off the likely seven to nine year process for offshore wind permitting. Given the need for further site-specific assessment before actual construction of wind energy systems, such estimates may be optimistic. The Draft EA is more than 200 pages. Comments on the Draft EA are due no later than August 11, 2011.

For more information about the topics addressed in this Legal Update, please contact J. Paul Forrester at +1 312 701 7366 or Kevin Desharnais at +1 312 701 8079.

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