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Federal renewable energy advisor told not to deal with NextEra

Steve Black, the Interior secretary’s alternative energy advisor, must recuse himself from matters involving NextEra Energy because of a romantic relationship with the company’s Washington lobbyist.

The chief architect of the Obama administration’s renewable energy policy has been instructed to refrain from any dealings with the country’s largest renewable energy company because of a romantic relationship with the firm’s Washington lobbyist.

Steve Black, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s alternative energy advisor, discussed his relationship with a NextEra Energy lobbyist with officials in the department’s ethics office last fall, an Interior spokesman said. To avoid a conflict of interest, Black was later told to recuse himself from matters involving NextEra, which has more than a dozen wind and solar power projects in California.

Black, 51, has been Interior’s point man on renewable issues and is closely involved with the department’s push to expand green energy projects on public land. Renewable energy is the singular environmental issue for both the Obama administration and Salazar, who has repeatedly traveled the West to promote wind and solar projects.

Black, who was legislative counsel for Salazar when he was a Colorado senator, represents Interior on a handful of committees and working groups trying to come up with a road map for renewable energy. The department is in the midst of large-scale planning efforts that affect every renewable energy company that does business on federal land.

Some conservationists who work with Black question his ability to extricate himself from matters concerning NextEra, given the broad nature of the administration’s effort. A prohibition against dealing with one of the largest renewable energy companies might hamstring Black’s ability to appropriately manage the planning effort.

“We’re looking at these large-scale planning processes – it’s going to amend land management plans in perpetuity, essentially,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is also a member of planning groups with Black. The Interior Department “needs to have someone engaged that doesn’t have ties to any company, so that they can make the best decisions to get renewable energy off the ground.”

County and state officials, in particular, have worked to ensure the transparency of the land-use planning work. Any hint of conflict of interest undermines that effort, said one official.

“I absolutely see the concern,” said Kern County planning director Lorelei Oviatt, who is working with Black on a large-scale planning project. “I think the integrity of the process is very important. Landowners and public land users … sometimes think that the process is not fair and equitable. Anything that raises questions about the integrity of the process is not good.”

There has been no suggestion that NextEra received special treatment from Interior.

Black leads the Renewable Energy Policy Group, a network of senior officials at state and federal agencies who make key decisions on multimillion-dollar solar and wind projects.

Also with that group was Manal Yamout, the woman now in a relationship with Black. Until last summer, Yamout was special advisor on renewable energy facilities to Gov. Jerry Brown. She held the same position in the Schwarzenegger administration.

Yamout declined to comment for this story.

NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel said that since the 28-year-old was hired as a lobbyist in July 2011, she has not engaged in any lobbying involving the Interior Department or the state of California.