Sunday, October 30, 2005

Nation's first offshore wind farm could rise in Gulf

Nation's first offshore wind farm could rise in Gulf
By Craig Salters/
Friday, October 28, 2005

When it comes to offshore wind projects - and pretty much everything else - Texas likes to do things its own way.

However, when it comes to alternative offshore energy, the Lone Star State is quite literally "exceptional." The state's jurisdiction regarding its coastal waters extends more than three times farther than the three-mile limit reserved for Massachusetts and other states.

That distinction came into play Monday when Texas, hailing "a new era for energy development in America," signed a lease agreement to allow an offshore wind farm seven miles off the coast of Galveston Island.

"Coastal wind power has come to the United States and found a home in Texas," said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the agency in charge of such decisions.

News of the lease agreement - announced in a big, big way by a state which made plain its intention to host the nation's first offshore wind farm - has little bearing on a developer's plan to construct 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. The announcement, however, highlights both the unique regulatory status enjoyed by Texas and its "been there, done that" attitude to offshore energy projects.

Like many Texas stories, the hero behind its offshore boundary of 10.36 miles, or three marine leagues, is Sam Houston. It was Houston who, as president of the republic, successfully maintained traditional offshore boundaries when Texas entered the Union in 1845. More than a century later, in the 1950s, the state defeated an attempt at federal control of its tidelands.

"We came in on our own terms as a sovereign nation," explained Patterson. "Because of Sam Houston's foresight, we now have the regulatory authority to move forward with less federal red tape. Who would have thought that the hero of San Jacinto would help bring wind energy to Texas?"

The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency which until recently had been in charge of the Nantucket Sound proposal, will have permitting authority over the Texas turbines but had nothing to do with the lease agreement.

"It's not their land," said Jim Suydam, press secretary for the Texas General Land Office. "It's Texas state land."

The lease calls for Galveston-Offshore Wind, a division of Louisiana-based Wind Energy Systems Technologies, to construct 50 offshore wind turbines on an 11,355-acre footprint in the Gulf of Mexico. The turbines, which could take as long as five years to build, would feature hubs 260 feet above sea level. Cape Wind says the hubs of its windmills would be 246 feet above sea level.

The $300 million project is expected to produce enough electricity to power roughly 40,000 homes.

In return, Texas will receive a minimum of $26.5 million in royalties over the course of the 30-year lease. Those funds, like those received from oil and gas leases, will be deposited into the state's Permanent School Fund.

"I have encountered no opposition," said Patterson, who added that studying the project's potential effects on migratory birds was an important issue that would be addressed. "We're not putting up one nickel and we're getting clean energy right next to the grid and millions in royalties, so I'd say it's a good deal."

A different mindset

Patterson, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran who keeps a gun in his boot and the current price of natural gas at his fingertips, said he was aware of the controversy surrounding the construction of a wind farm on Nantucket Sound; he also said he had a hard time understanding it.

"I think it's a different mindset," said Patterson, who noted that, to Texans, offshore oil and gas rigs represent a booming economy. "Folks down here are comfortable with energy and this is just another form of energy."

Charles Vinick, president and CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a key opponent of the proposed wind farm in federal waters off Cape Cod, said he does not know enough specifics about the Texas project to offer an opinion, but generally supports wind power.

"There will be wind projects announced throughout the country and, in general, that's a good thing for all of us and a positive step," said Vinick, whose group has expressed support for alternative energy but vocal opposition to the project planned for the Sound.

According to Vinick, who said he was aware of Texas' unique circumstances, what is most important is that there be some established public process for wind farm projects. Just two weeks ago Vinick hailed the federal government's decision to give the Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the Department of Interior, permitting and leasing authority for renewable energy projects on the Outer Continental Shelf. That decision effectively put MMS, an agency experienced in leasing offshore gas and oil projects, in charge of Cape Wind Associates' proposal to construct a wind farm on a 24 square-mile section of Horseshoe Shoals.

"That's the way we should grow this industry," said Vinick, referring specifically to MMS' history of "programmatic review" of all projects.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, said that his company learned about the Texas lease agreement late last week when state officials called to ask for video footage of working offshore wind turbines.

"It's good news," said Rodgers. He noted that the Texas project "would not happen overnight" and that the possibility of Cape Wind being the first offshore wind farm still exists. "From our standpoint, any credible wind initiative in the United States is inherently positive. It validates the technology and validates the benefits."

Rodgers also acknowledges Texas' unique rules regarding coastal jurisdiction and, like Vinick, sees many positives in MMS's new role as lead review agency for the Cape Wind proposal.

Before MMS, the Army Corps of Engineers served as the lead review agency for the project and was in the process of finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement from an earlier draft. Although that responsibility now goes to MMS, the corps still has a role in issuing a Section 10 permit based upon the federal Rivers and Harbors Act.

The Texas project

Location: Gulf of Mexico, off Galveston

Developer: for Galveston-Offshore Wind

Site: 11,355 acres

Wind turbines: 50

- Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office

- Mark Rodgers, Cape Wind Associates