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U.S. closer to allowing wind farms off Atlantic

The U.S. Interior Department expects little environmental impact from testing the feasibility of wind farms off the coast of four Atlantic coast states, according to a draft document released Monday.

The findings, which could be changed after the department reviews public comments, are an indication that the agency may be prepared to lease the areas for wind development without a more lengthy environmental review.

The document released Monday is a preliminary assessment of a proposal to lease areas off the coasts of New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland and to allow companies to test whether the areas are viable for generating wind power. It is part of a wider push by the Obama administration to speed up the permitting process for what are known as wind farms.

In a news release asking for public comment on the document, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that, “with today’s announcement, we are taking another step toward ensuring that renewable [energy] development along the Atlantic outer continental shelf becomes a reality.”

The areas under consideration for lease include about 354,000 acres off southern New Jersey, 139,000 acres off the Virginia coast, 103,000 acres off Delaware’s shores and 80,000 acres off the coast of Maryland. Leasing the areas and allowing testing there would have a relatively small effect on wildlife, commercial fishing, water quality and other concerns, the draft environmental review found.

The department will take public comments for about a month and then evaluate whether to close the environmental review, a decision it expects to make by the end of the summer. It could decide to move forward with the leasing plan or to conduct a further environmental review.

If further review isn’t needed, the agency hopes to hold a lease sale by the end of this year, a spokeswoman said.

Before building wind farms, companies that buy leases will still have to come to the department with their own detailed proposals, which will require a separate environmental review.

“We will conduct a thorough environmental analysis of each proposed commercial project [and] will continue to work with our state renewable-energy task forces to advance renewable-energy development carefully and responsibly,” said Michael Bromwich, director of the Interior Department’s bureau that handles offshore leasing, in a written statement.