Since 1896, when Californians sunk the first oil well into the seabed from a wharf jutting 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean, the American offshore energy industry has been all about fossil fuels.
But our potential is so much greater. “Drill now, drill everywhere” is a closed-minded strategy of the past. And with every day that goes by as we continue to focus on fossil fuels for energy, we fall further behind the rest of the world in the quest to diversify our offshore energy portfolio.
By continuing to prioritize yesterday’s technologies, we are locking ourselves into an energy future that dooms our climate, harms our environment, and sacrifices human health. The costs of coal, oil, and natural gas have all been kept artificially cheap by government subsidies and by our failure to make polluters pay for the negative effects of their emissions. Artificially lowering the price of these commodities slants the playing field, making it harder for new clean energy sources to compete in the marketplace.
As America has stood on the sidelines, other countries such as Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, and even China have leapt ahead of us in developing one particularly strong—and commercially viable—renewable resource, which the United States also happens to have in abundance: offshore wind. As of June 2012 the rest of the world boasted 4,619 megawatts of total installed offshore wind energy capacity. Meanwhile, we have not even begun construction of our first offshore turbine. Lack of a clear regulatory structure, inconsistent messages from other ocean stakeholders, congressional budget battles, opposition to specific project siting, and instability in financial markets have all played a role in preventing domestic offshore wind from becoming a reality.
Much of this has changed under President Barack Obama’s leadership. In February 2011 the Departments of Energy and the Interior announced the intention to develop 54 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, and the United States is closing the gap between our domestic offshore wind industry and those of the rest of the world. In 2012 alone the administration and Congress made major strides toward encouraging renewable energy development on the outer continental shelf:
- In November 2012 the Department of the Interior announced the first-ever competitive sales on the outer continental shelf for offshore wind energy. This allows potential developers to bid on 277,550 acres in two wind energy areas—one off the coast of Virginia and another off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These areas are expected to be able to support more than 4,000 megawatts of wind generation—enough electricity to power an estimated 1.4 million homes.
- In October 2012 the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management signed its first lease under the “Smart from the Start” program with developer NRG Bluewater Wind, giving them rights to build a wind farm off the coast of Delaware. In May and August the bureau issued Determinations of No Competitive Interest for two cable routes to transmit power—one for the Atlantic Wind Connection off the mid-Atlantic seaboard and another for the Deepwater Wind Block Island project off Rhode Island. And in December 2012, the bureau began leasing and approving site assessment/characterization environmental assessments off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina.
- In December 2012 the Department of Energy announced that it will fund seven offshore wind technology demonstration projects, including Fishermen’s Atlantic City Windfarm in New Jersey; technology projects in California, the Great Lakes, Connecticut, and Maine; and two turbines off the coast of Virginia. The recipients are eligible for up to $4 million each in project-development grants.
The U.S. offshore wind industry is beginning to emerge from the political doldrums that clouded its early days, and it is finding champions in Congress, as well as in the Obama administration.