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For the first time, the federal government is opening the door to offshore wind energy development on the California coast, including an area off Humboldt County and two others off San Luis Obispo County.

The oil-friendly Trump administration is soliciting proposals for wind power projects in the trio of areas totaling more than 1,000 square miles in federal waters that start 3 miles from the shore.

In addition to the area off Eureka, the Interior Department is contemplating commercial wind power leases off a large swath of the San Luis Obispo coast: west of San Simeon and Cambria at the southern tip of Big Sur, and from Morro Bay south past the Santa Barbara County line.

“I’m very bullish on offshore wind, and harnessing this renewable resource is a big part of the Trump administration’s made-in-America energy strategy,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a press release announcing the action.

A Humboldt County agency has already filed for permission to develop a $500 million project more than 20 miles off the coast at Eureka.

Proposed by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, the project — with about 15 turbines as tall as the towers on the Golden Gate Bridge — would be the first floating offshore wind energy farm in North America, said Matthew Marshall, executive director of the agency.

“We believe this project can represent a game changer for the industry in the U.S.,” Joao Metelo, CEO of Principle Power, an international wind power developer that is part of the Humboldt County agency’s coalition, said in a press release.

Environmentalists said they favor clean energy but are cautious because the impact of floating turbines on the ocean, including fisheries, is unknown.

Floating wind generators are currently 700 feet tall and may grow larger as the technology improves, Marshall said.

With average wind speeds of more than 20 miles per hour, the Humboldt County coast is considered an ideal location for wind power. “We really have a world-class resource here,” he said.

The project would generate about 120 megawatts of power, enough for more than 70,000 households.

The agency, formed in 2003 and including the county and seven cities, is aimed at developing local sustainable energy and had wind power in mind from the start, Marshall said.

A time line for the project, which would cover about 75 square miles, envisions starting construction in 2023 and turning it on by the end of 2024, he said. The turbines would be located 24 to 33 miles from shore.

It would fit within the footprint of the Interior Department’s wind lease area off Humboldt Bay.

Both leases off the San Luis Obispo coast are in an area long eyed by environmental, tribal and other coastal protection advocates for a new federal marine sanctuary, where energy development is generally prohibited. The lease west of Cambria abuts the existing Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which spans from Big Sur to the Golden Gate.

Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a 40-year veteran of the fight against offshore oil drilling, said wind turbines in that lease area would be visible from part of the Big Sur coast due to its elevated vantage point.

Wind power “could be a good thing but we don’t know enough about the impacts on the ocean ecosystem,” he said.

The Trump administration, he said, “seems allergic to doing the science to do this safely.”

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management also announced a plan to sell at auction the rights to develop wind farms on nearly 390,000 acres off Massachusetts and preparation of an environmental study of 15 turbines proposed for development off Rhode Island.

More offshore wind energy development is anticipated on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the federal agency said.

Charter expressed concerns about whales getting tangled in the cables that anchor floating turbines to the ocean floor, as well as sea birds encountering the gigantic blades.

Development of wind energy facilities at Eureka might ultimately pave the way for oil drilling, he said, a step long feared by coastal advocates and public officials on the North Coast.

Charter also suggested the move toward offshore wind power may reflect the administration’s concern that its offshore oil development plan is facing strong opposition from most coastal states.

Marshall said there would be a “robust” effort to assess the Humboldt project’s impacts, noting that it would need approval by local, state and federal agencies.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said his group has been in talks with the Humboldt County organization.

“The question is how do we divvy up the ocean in a way that is equitable for the fishermen,” he said.

Assessment of the impact of floating wind farms is “operating in an information-poor environment,” Oppenheim said. “We don’t know where the economic value (of fisheries) resides in the ocean.”

Fishermen are “huge fans of renewable energy,” he said, drawing a contrast with fossil fuel extraction.

Representatives of five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resource Defense Council, signed a letter last year calling for a cautious approach to offshore wind development.

The letter to the California Energy Commission advocated “prioritizing ecological considerations” and setting “a rigorous environmental bar” in selecting lease sites in collaboration with the Interior Department.

Representatives of California Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Defense Center also signed the letter.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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