WASHINGTON — While the Obama administration has touted offshore renewable energy development, a turf fight between two federal agencies has stymied the government's ability to issue rules needed to approve wind energy projects off America's coasts.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday the infighting has got to stop.
"It will be resolved," Salazar said in response to questions about the dispute. "We will not let any of the jurisdictional turf battles of the past get in the way of our moving forward with the renewable energy agenda."
The dispute, which dates to late 2007, pits the Interior Department against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over which entity should approve projects that use coastal waves and currents to produce power.
Offshore wind development has been entangled in the dispute because Interior's Minerals Management Service does not want to separate wind projects from the tidal wave, or hydrokinetic power, programs _ which FERC in turn has refused to surrender, according to several officials who have followed the dispute.
Interior and FERC are said to be close to agreement on a "memorandum of understanding" that would delineate each organization's involvement in the offshore renewable energy approval process.
Salazar has been vocal in his call for more aggressive development of renewable energy projects off the country's coasts, especially off the northern and central Atlantic. He said the governors of New Jersey and Delaware have asked what is holding up the regulations and said projects off their coasts are ready to go.
Jon Wellinghoff, acting chairman of FERC, played down the interagency dispute and _ like Salazar _ said he was confident the problem will soon be worked out.
"It's less of a dispute than people say it is," insisted Wellinghoff in a brief interview, adding that he doubted it has stopped any wind projects.
"It has nothing to do with wind. It only has to do with our jurisdiction over hydrokinetic systems, whether they are on the Outer Continental Shelf or not," said Wellinghoff. He said he saw no reason why the Minerals Management Service would insist on viewing the tidal wave and wind issues together.
Salazar over the past week met with Wellinghoff to try to work out a memorandum of understanding that could be issued as early as this week. Both men are expected to be asked about the disagreement at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday.
"If we don't resolve the jurisdictional issues between FERC and the Department of Interior, we are not going to be able to move forward in the development of our offshore renewable energy resources," said Salazar.
Mike Olsen, an attorney who represents Deep Water Wind, a company that wants to build a 96-turbine wind farm off the New Jersey coast, calls the dispute a classic government turf battle.
"It's two agencies both feeling each has specific authority and jurisdiction. Neither one wants to yield its authority or jurisdiction to the other," said Olsen, who as a deputy assistant Interior secretary in the Bush administration observed the dispute first hand.
Interior waged "a full court press" to get the rules on offshore renewable energy development finalize last year, Olsen said, but the effort was thwarted by the lack of an agreement with FERC.
"From our perspective the rule was ready to go in November," said Olsen. But despite involvement of the Bush White House, no memorandum of understanding on the jurisdiction issue could be hammered out between Interior and FERC.
With a new administration on the horizon "the battle was put on hold," he said.