The potential for wind turbines off the coast of New Jersey passed one more hurdle Thursday, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that several "priority areas" in the Mid-Atlantic had passed an initial environmental review.

That allows the department to begin the process of offering leases to developers.

"Offshore wind holds incredible potential for our country, and we're moving full-steam ahead to accelerate the siting, leasing, and construction of new projects," Salazar said.

Eleven companies have expressed interest in building projects off New Jersey, responding to a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management call for information last year.

When offshore projects were first contemplated, the federal government did not even have a system in place to issue permits. Now it does, and officials have been working to streamline the process.

Officials said that allowing the initial environmental review of broad swaths of the outer continental shelf, including about 500 square miles off New Jersey, could shorten the permit process by two years.

Developers will still need to conduct environmental reviews for specific projects.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, an industry group, called Salazar's announcement "a critical step in the establishment of the U.S. offshore wind industry."

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) said the wind initiative would "help New Jersey become a national leader in wind-energy innovation. ... With our natural resources, workforce, and research institutions, New Jersey is a fertile place to grow a strong wind-energy economy."

Environmental groups also praised the action. The National Wildlife Federation said the Obama administration was "hitting the accelerator" in the pursuit of offshore wind energy.

Meanwhile, Fishermen's Energy of New Jersey L.L.C. has proceeded with a demonstration project about three miles east of Atlantic City. The company also wants to build in federal waters, but because this project is in state waters, the approval process has not taken as long.

The company has received some permits and is awaiting a final nod from the state Board of Public Utilities.