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The Obama administration is forging ahead with a plan to make hundreds of thousands of acres of mid-Atlantic waters available for offshore wind farm leasing after confirming the development won't significantly affect other ocean users.

The Interior Department said it has finalized an environmental assessment that clears the way for leases as early as this year off the coasts of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.

The agency said it expects no significant problems to arise from allowing companies to gather wind data and survey oceans for archaeological or biological impacts.

The announcement is part of a broad White House push to accelerate renewable energy development on public lands and waters while minimizing impacts on the environment. A similar plan is under way for solar in the desert Southwest.

"Offshore wind holds incredible potential for our country, and we're moving full steam ahead to accelerate the siting, leasing and construction of new projects," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call from Baltimore, where he was joined by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy Beaudreau and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

"You have dozens of companies that are well financed and want to go out and build these projects," he said, noting the potential for thousands of manufacturing jobs stretching from Boston to Savannah, Ga. "It's about economic security ... it's jobs for America."

The agency today also announced the finalization of a first-of-its-kind lease form to help streamline the issuance of renewable energy leases off the nation's coasts. BOEM also published a call for Maryland and Virginia to solicit lease nominations from industry and to request public comments regarding site conditions on roughly 200,000 offshore acres.

"That's never happened in the history of our country," O'Malley said, referring to what could be the first-ever competitive lease sales for offshore wind. "That's a very important deliverable that we're making today."

Beaudreau said the size of the potential wind energy-development areas was whittled slightly from when they were announced roughly a year ago in order to avoid conflicts with other ocean users and the environment.

"We've been extremely thorough in our review," he said.

The agency's environmental assessment gauged potential impacts from site-characterization activities like geophysical, archaeological and biological surveys and infrastructure tests of meteorological towers and buoys.

Winning bidders would still have to submit construction and operating plans for an actual wind farm, which would trigger their own environmental reviews.

In addition to permitting, offshore wind developers face several other hurdles, including high capital costs and a lack of offshore transmission and onshore infrastructure. In Congress, industry leaders face the looming expiration of investment tax credits and eroding support for renewable energy loan guarantees.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said it is important for Congress to continue policies that will strengthen investment in the offshore wind industry.

"I commend Secretary Salazar and the administration for their commitment to offshore wind," Carper said in a statement this morning. "Moving forward, I will continue my efforts to work with the administration and my colleagues to support initiatives -- such as common sense regulations, offshore wind investment tax credits and clean manufacturing incentives -- that will support and strengthen this promising clean energy industry."

Interior said it has taken lessons from the Cape Wind project off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. -- which has taken roughly a decade to develop -- by trimming the leasing and permitting timeline. One proposal advanced last year would eliminate a procedural step that has delayed the issuance of noncompetitive offshore leases.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said Interior's "finding of no significant impact" for offshore leasing could trim the permitting timeline for offshore wind farms by as much as two more years.

"This is a critical step in the establishment of the U.S. offshore wind industry, which will create thousands of high skilled jobs and allow for billions of dollars in investment," he said in an emailed statement. "We hope to quickly catch up with the European offshore wind industry."

Environmentalists cheered today's decision, arguing that offshore wind could offset a significant portion of the nation's coal- and gas-powered electricity. Advocates say Interior's leasing plan is an early manifestation of the White House's National Ocean Policy, which launched in 2010.

"By developing these resources in a way that's smart from the start, the administration can give this budding industry the boost it needs to start delivering the economic, health and environmental benefits it promises," said Kit Kennedy, clean energy counsel at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"NRDC will be carefully reviewing the documents released by federal authorities today to ensure that appropriate environmental protections and mitigation measures have been incorporated and will continue to advocate for smart siting of offshore wind projects."

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