WASHINGTON (AP) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday he is optimistic that the nation's first offshore wind farm will break ground this year after more than a decade of delays.
"I think there's a good chance it will happen before the end of the year," Salazar said in an interview with The Associated Press in which he also touted efforts to reform the Interior Department's oversight of offshore drilling after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I think the coziness with industry that was there when I came into the department is gone," he said.
Salazar said he was optimistic about the long-delayed Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast, because developers have agreements with utilities to purchase about 75 percent of the power the project is expected to generate and are working to get more.
The $2.6 billion project off Cape Cod was the first offshore project to win a federal lease when Salazar gave his approval in 2010.
But the project has stalled amid lawsuits and difficulties obtaining financing. Developers plan to build 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound, but they've faced bitter opposition since they first proposed the project in 2001.
Opponents have filed several pending lawsuits and argue the project will ruin the pristine sound and endanger marine traffic and animal life. They also say the project's electricity is significantly overpriced and a terrible deal for ratepayers.
Cape Wind says the cost is worth the project's benefits, including jobs, decreased pollution and the creation of a reliable power source near a busy coastline.
Salazar, who is leaving office in the next few weeks, said the delays and lawsuits that have plagued Cape Wind illustrate the difficulty of developing new energy sources. Regulatory improvements made under his leadership should allow other offshore projects to follow more quickly, he said.
"Nobody had really focused on offshore wind energy until President Obama came into office. Cape Wind wasn't even processed under the authority of this department. They ended up in this morass where it took them 10 years to work through that process," Salazar said.
Now, with so-called wind energy zones designated in the Atlantic Ocean, a host of wind farms should crop up from Maine to Virginia, Salazar said. "We're very, very excited by the progress that has been made and we look forward to a robust offshore wind industry in the Atlantic," he said.
On offshore drilling, Salazar said he did the right thing by imposing an unprecedented shutdown of offshore drilling after the BP spill. He also renamed and revamped the agency that oversees offshore drilling in the wake of the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders said the six-month shutdown crippled the oil and gas industry and cost thousands of jobs, but Salazar said the moratorium was the right decision.
Now, regulators "are being a lot smarter about what we lease" on the Outer Continental Shelf, he said. "We are making sure that people are kept accountable and that problems are detected and fixed as rapidly as possible."
Salazar disputed claims by some environmental groups that the reforms have not gone far enough to change a culture at the drilling agency that often favored industry.
"We are in a much better place," he said. "I think the coziness with industry that was there when I came into the department is gone."
A former U.S. senator from Colorado, the 58-year-old Salazar ran the Interior Department throughout President Barack Obama's first term. Along with reform of the offshore drilling agency, his tenure was marked by a strong push for renewable energy such as solar and wind power and the settlement of a longstanding dispute with American Indians.
The Interior Department manages more than 500 million acres in national parks and other public lands, as well as more than 1 billion acres offshore. The department oversees energy, mining operations and recreation and provides services to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes.
Under Salazar's watch, Interior has authorized more than 40 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that officials say will provide enough electricity to power more than 4 million homes.
Salazar called his four-year tenure a "joyful journey" that took him from the Everglades to the Arctic. Still, he said he was eager to return to his family and his Colorado ranch.
"I came here to accomplish a mission and I've accomplished that mission," he said, adding that he was "able to do as much in four years as I would have done in 40 years in the Senate."
Salazar praised Obama's choice to replace him as Interior secretary, Recreational Equipment Inc. CEO Sally Jewell, and said he expects her to win confirmation in the Senate.
Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, said Salazar deserves credit for shepherding the Cape Wind project and developing policies to boost offshore wind in the U.S.
"We'll look back someday and see the important role Ken Salazar played in helping launch an American offshore wind industry that's going to be very important for decades to come," Rodgers said.
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