US offshore wind developers welcomed the federal government’s environmental assessment of expected projects off four eastern states, saying it would cut the time needed for permitting by around two years and boost the prospects that a number of planned projects will be built.

“The issuance of the draft EA…is very good news for the offshore wind industry,” said Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, a trade group.

If the assessment is approved and the Department of the Interior finds there’s no significant impact from leasing blocks of ocean, it’s likely that two years can be taken off the current permitting timeline of seven to nine years, Lanard said in a statement.

The DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement on Monday launched a 30-day public-comment period on its draft assessment of the environmental and socioeconomic effects of issuing renewable energy leases in designated wind energy areas off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

“This step in the development of offshore wind means we are getting closer to obtaining reliable energy, good paying American jobs and independence from fuels that pollute our air and drain our economy.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the measure represents a further step toward realizing plans for wind farms on the Atlantic coast’s outer continental shelf.

About a dozen wind farms are proposed off the US East Coast overall but none has yet started construction, in contrast to Europe where the technology has been in use for some 20 years, according to the coalition. The farms are in federal and state waters.

Peter Mandelstam, president of NRG Bluewater Wind, which plans to build a farm off the Delaware coast, said the DOI’s move has cut red tape and shown that the Obama administration is serious about expediting offshore wind.

“This means that Delaware has taken one very large step forward to signing the lease,” Mandelstam told Breaking Energy.

By issuing an environmental assessment rather than a lengthier environmental impact statement on the leasing stage of the offshore wind process, BOEMRE has streamlined the process, Mandelstam said.

Blue Water Ahead

The Bluewater project, which would build as many as 150 turbines 13 miles off the Delaware coast, generating up to 200 megawatts, is now hoping to obtain a permit by March 2014, two years earlier than it would have done without the latest assessment, Mandelstam said.

But the project, which was the first in the US to sign a power-purchase agreement with a local utility, was delayed in May when NRG halted construction of a meteorological tower, citing financial uncertainty created by cuts in a federal loan-guarantee program.

Mandelstam said on Tuesday that the company is continuing talks with banks and other financial institutions about new sources of financing, while urging federal lawmakers to restore the loan guarantees that were cut during budget talks this spring.

He declined to describe the status of financing talks but said the banks have been “very engaged.”

BOEMRE said it anticipated issuing 13 leases, seven of which would be off New Jersey; two off Maryland; three off Virginia, and one off Delaware. The average lease size would be about 10 blocks, similar to the lease size for the planned Cape Wind project off Massachusetts.

In its 246-page assessment, the agency said it anticipated little or no impact to coastal habitats or marine mammals, including protected sea turtles, from construction associated with farms in the four wind energy areas.

Delaware Senator Tom Carper, who has promoted the Bluewater project, said the EA would help to make offshore wind a reality.

“This step in the development of offshore wind means we are getting closer to obtaining reliable energy, good paying American jobs and independence from fuels that pollute our air and drain our economy,” he said in a statement.