Interior, FERC end feud on offshore renewable projects
New York Times | Greenwire | March 17, 2009
By NOELLE STRAUB
The Interior Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed to work together to settle a longstanding conflict over which agency oversees offshore alternative energy, the Interior Department announced today.
"I'm proud to let you know this morning that late last night we signed a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Interior and FERC that will allow us to move forward with the siting of renewable energy facilities in the outer continental shelf," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Noting that there is no dispute with respect to offshore wind energy, Salazar added that the intention of FERC and Interior's Minerals Management Service is to work together to finalize rules governing all offshore alternative energies, including current and tidal.
"We don't want to be tripping over each other as we're dealing with ocean, tidal and wave energy," Salazar said. "We are very ready to move forward with offshore wind technologies. ... We will work out something that will be satisfactory to both FERC and us."
The two agencies will issue a broader memorandum of understanding outlining the process by which permits and licenses related to offshore renewable energy resources will be developed, Salazar said.
Salazar said the agencies may be ready to finalize offshore alternative energy rules within as little as two months, after he has held four regional meetings to receive public comments. But he cautioned that if major changes are made to the rules, which were proposed by the Bush administration before leaving office, it could add several months to the timeline.
Speaking to reporters in his trademark ten-gallon hat and bolo tie after the hearing, Salazar said the agreement will have a "huge impact" and create necessary dialogue between the agencies to prevent conflicts over offshore tidal projects. He said he envisions a good number of projects in the Atlantic Ocean four years from now.
Interior has permitting authority under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 over the production and transmission of renewable energy sources on the outer continental shelf.
"Interior's authority does not diminish existing responsibilities that other agencies have with regard to the outer continental shelf," the statement signed by Salazar and FERC acting Chairman Jon Wellinghoff says.
FERC oversees development of hydropower resources, including wave, tidal and ocean current energy. FERC will have primary responsibility to manage the licensing of such projects "with the active involvement" of Interior, the statement said.
Interior and FERC have been at odds for years over regulation of fledgling efforts to develop energy from offshore waves and currents.
Attempts to reach a formal memorandum of understanding failed during the Bush administration as the agencies sought to reconcile FERC's licensing authority for hydropower with Interior's Minerals Management Service jurisdiction over projects on the federal outer continental shelf.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M) said he's a bit skeptical of the announcement.
"It's easy to announce there's going to be resolution, but from the point of view of a potential developer ... I'm just not exactly sure this is going to be that streamlined of a process," Bingaman said.
FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller clarified that his agency has no interest in wind power, but only in hydrokinetic power.
"We don't have any interest in the wind," Moeller said. "That's all in the realm of MMS. ... We don't have jurisdiction on that."
He said there could be cases of shared projects, but the memorandum of understanding could work out a good dialogue that would allow that to work smoothly. "I'm absolutely confident we can solve it," he said.
But Bingaman asked for more details and said that when his committee writes an energy bill, it will have to decide whether to legislate a solution to the jurisdictional dispute over "who has authority for what." Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also questioned whether the committee should include a fix in an energy bill.
But Moeller said that isn't necessary. "I don't think we need a legislative fix," he said. "I think we can solve it with a memorandum of understanding."
He said FERC's role would be as a citing agency, while Minerals Management Service would have a role as a leasing agency. That way the two agencies could work together in situations in which there is proposed development, Moeller said.
Renewable energy groups praised today's agreement.
"We are quite pleased to hear that the FERC-MMS dispute has been solved through the MOU announced by Secretary Salazar this morning," said the American Wind Energy Association's siting manager, Laurie Jodziewicz. "This will allow the offshore alternative energy rule to proceed, and some offshore wind projects that faced uncertainty to move forward."
Sean O'Neill of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition also praised the agreement. The group prefers a memorandum of understanding over a legislative resolution, saying it would allow for better flexibility.
Chris Wissemann, founder and chief operating officer of Deepwater Wind, which is developing projects off Rhode Island and New Jersey, called it "long overdue good news for wind developers looking at tapping our rich offshore wind resources."
Lawmakers from Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine and elsewhere wrote Salazar last week expressing concern about how delays in the offshore alternative rule will affect plans for wind projects.
The lawmakers expressed concern that FERC's current ability to permit offshore hydropower projects, combined with the absence of completed MMS rules, will allow "claim jumping" on rights to offshore tracts that wind developers have studied for years (ClimateWire, March 17).
Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.