The UK on Monday launched the first step of its 7GW-plus Round 4 offshore wind leasing process, which is expected to see more of the world’s oil and gas giants seek a slice of future development rights for turbines off Britain's coast.

Seabed landlord the Crown Estate issued the pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) designed to gauge developers’ financial and technical ability to deliver the massive projects the round hopes to spur off England and Wales into the late 2020s.

Round 4 is the first major opportunity in a decade to secure new acreage in the world’s biggest offshore wind market, where growth has so far been dominated by power sector players such as Iberdrola, Vattenfall, E.ON and Innogy, as well as Orsted of Denmark, which shifted decisively away from fossil fuels to become the global leader in wind at sea.

Norwegian oil and gas group Equinor has already emerged as a major force in the UK sector after the giant Dogger Bank development was the biggest winner in the latest contract-for-difference (CfD) round, which awards government-backed power deals to projects successful in earlier Crown Estate leasing rounds.

Round 4 is expected to see the entry of more big fossil fuel players. Shell – which is active in other offshore wind markets – has indicated several times it is interested in the UK sector, and could be a bidder.

France’s Total has said it is open to entering UK offshore wind, with leasing off Scotland – subject of a parallel process by the Crown Estate there – namechecked by its CEO earlier this year.

Most recently Italian oil and gas group Eni said it would team up with developer Mainstream Renewable Power to enter Round 4.

The Crown Estate zoned in on four broad areas for development under Round 4 to add to the UK’s existing 9.3GW of operating offshore wind – the largest in the world – with another 4.4GW already under construction.

Three of the bidding areas – Dogger Bank; Eastern Regions and Northern Wales and Irish Sea, already feature heavily in the UK’s offshore wind plans.

The fourth, South East England, opens the way for development off the nation’s south coast. A map showing the areas can be viewed here.

The PQQ submission deadline is 29 November, ahead of the first invitation to tender stage early in 2020.

The Crown Estate expects to finalise leases with successful bidders in late 2021.