The Bush administration wants to lasso the immense power of the nation’s oceans to corral another form of alternative energy.

In conjunction with its offshore arm the Minerals Management Service, the Department of Interior (DOI) unveiled a broad plan to allow companies to bid on ways to test meteorological towers in the ocean waters to gather wind, wave or current energy data. If the plan proves successful, wind turbines could begin spinning off U.S. coastlines within a few years.

“Offshore alternative energy is a new and highly anticipated frontier for the nation, as well as a new regulatory program for the Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service,” said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “This is an important step in fostering a new industry offshore that will diversify our nation’s power supplies and open up new avenues to supply renewable energy to areas that may otherwise have limited options onshore.”

The 1.8 billion acres of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) begin three miles offshore and extend for 200 nautical miles. The alternative energy locations would vary and depend on several factors, including wind resources and environmental impacts. National parks, fisheries and historical sites would be off limits.

Different parts of the country hold the potential for different energy sources, according to DOI.

About 70% of the ocean’s wind power may be found in the Mid-Atlantic states in water less than 60 meters deep, Kempthorne said. Most of the potential for subsurface current energy may be found in the Gulf Stream flowing north from Florida’s East Coast, and if even one-thousandth of the Gulf Stream’s energy could be captured, it would supply a third of Florida’s energy, he noted. On the Pacific Coast between Washington and Northern California, wave energy holds the most promise, Kempthorne said.

Overall, if only 15% of the nation’s wave energy were harvested, the DOI estimates that about 22 million homes in the country could be supplied with energy.

“There’s a lot of interest in the program,” said Kempthorne. “Many stakeholders — individuals, governmental and nongovernmental organizations as well — have recommended to MMS that we be expeditious in authorizing OCS alternative energy resource assessment activities. Expediting our resource data acquisition and technology testing results will benefit stakeholders through expanded knowledge of this developing energy frontier. It will also help to inform future decision-making with respect to the program.”

DOI’s Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (FPEIS) on the alternative energy plan was issued Monday. The FPEIS examines the potential environmental effects of the program on the OCS over the next five to seven years and identifies policies and best management practices that may be adopted for the program. It assesses potential impacts from development, operation and decommissioning of alternative energy or alternate use facilities and identifies key issues and mitigation measures that should be considered by subsequent site-specific reviews.

The FPEIS is available at MMS intends to prepare a separate National Environmental Policy Act analysis, tiered from the FPEIS, to evaluate the environmental impacts of the proposed regulatory framework for alternative energy and alternate use activities on the OCS.

The MMS also has established an interim policy on offshore alternative energy resource assessment and technology testing, and it will accept public comments over the next two months to approve meteorological or marine data collection facilities on the OCS to assess alternative energy resources (e.g., wind, wave and ocean current) or test alternative energy technology.

After the 60-day period, MMS will begin the process of evaluating nominated areas of the OCS for leasing for data collection and testing technology under this interim policy. MMS will continue to accept nominations under this interim policy until the final program regulations are in place. To assist the nomination process, MMS is developing a web mapping viewer, which is expected be operational in mid-November. This web mapping server will display specific features in areas, such as boundaries, fairways, etc. MMS will accept comments and nominations through Jan. 7 at or by mail to MMS, Alternative Energy and Alternate Use Team (MS 4080), 381 Elden St., Herndon, VA 20170.

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