The Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Interior released a report this month confirming that a senior Obama administration official with cozy ties to the renewable energy industry pressured subordinates to ignore environmental concerns in favor of providing rubber-stamp approval to power plants. The IG report focuses on the actions of Steve Black – who retired from Interior in 2013 and served as senior counselor to former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar – because he dated a lobbyist for renewable energy company NextEra and also put his name forward to serve as CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), all while continuing to manage the approval of renewable energy projects on public lands. At the very least, Mr. Black’s actions constitute the appearance of impropriety that undermines our ability to trust Interior leadership to manage public lands based on sound science rather than special interests.
As senior counselor to the Secretary of Interior, Black had considerable influence and managed to reach into the Department’s many offices – including the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – in an attempt to manipulate the recommendations of environmental impact analysis and wildlife investigations. The IG report suggests that Black exerted improper influence that resulted in potentially less scrutiny of a wind project that ended up killing a golden eagle in the western Mojave Desert, attempts to manipulate environmental reviews of at least two solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, and revisions of the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) to expand the industry’s access to biologically sensitive lands.
The IG was prevented from fully investigating Black’s actions on behalf of industry. Although Black and NextEra officials were interviewed early on in the investigation, the IG report suggests that Black and some company officials stopped cooperating with the investigation after the IG uncovered e-mails indicating NextEra believed Black was critical in clearing the path for its projects.
North Sky River Wind Project
The IG report examines whether or not Black’s influence facilitated the approval of NextEra’s North Sky River wind project in the western Mojave Desert. The IG report quotes e-mails of NextEra executives who were confident that Black worked at NextEra’s behest to prevent a thorough environmental review of the company’s wind project, which biologists were concerned could result in the deaths of golden eagles or even California condors. Although the project was built on private land, it required access to public lands for transmission and fiber optic lines, as well as modification of BLM roads. NextEra learned in May 2011 that BLM and FWS were discussing whether to conduct a more thorough analysis of the entire wind project as a “connected action.” NextEra complained to Black about the potential environmental analysis, singling out a particular BLM biologist that the company thought was trying to “kill” the project. Interior only completed a “finding of no significant impact” for the project, and not the more thorough assessment that NextEra dreaded.
Although BLM officials told the IG that their decision to conduct a less thorough environmental review was their own and not a resutl of any pressure by Black, e-mails included in the IG report clearly show that NextEra executives credited Black with the “green light we were expecting,” and avoiding “wacky application of law or discretion.”
The IG report also shows that Black continued to alert NextEra officials to concerns by wildlife officials that could stop the project, giving the company the ability to quickly intervene with other political contacts. In June 2011, Black forwarded a California Department of Fish and Wildlife report that expressed concern that the North Sky River wind project would have a significant impact on birds and bats. NextEra officials then sent it to Manal Yamout, who at the time worked in the office of Governor Jerry Brown, and asked her for “background intel and guidance.” By August 2011, Yamout got a job as a lobbyist for NextEra and began dating Black.
The North Sky River wind project was eventually permitted and built, and killed its first golden eagle in early 2013, just weeks after beginning operations. According to the IG report, FWS officials reported that they frequently told NextEra that the company should apply for a golden eagle “take” permit. However, NextEra officials told the IG that Black provided contradictory advice that the company should only complete an “avian and bat protection plan,” and that FWS was not yet ready to issue “take” permits.
Pressure to Favor Industry in the DRECP
A deputy division chief for FWS’ Region 8 – covering the California desert – told the IG that “Black did not want to “let go” of potential development areas that had environmental concerns, and the DRECP process had been delayed many times by his repeated requests to the team to reassess areas in which renewable energy acreage and megawatts could be added.” An FWS biologist interviewed echoed the concern, indicating that Black put pressure on FWS to keep certain development areas in the DRECP despite concerns that such areas would conflict with wildlife values.
Although the IG report does not state which development focus areas Black sought to include in the DRECP, interviews with some employees indicate Black pressured them to include more development areas for the wind industry. This pressure on behalf of the wind industry came after Black asked a NextEra executive to submit Black’s name as a candidate to be CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), according to the IG report. The fact the Black was pushing for increased wind industry access to desert wildlands when he was being considered to lead AWEA is extremely troubling. Documents released in response to a previous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that Black and other Interior officials communicated closely with AWEA to ensure that the draft Interior regulations did not jeopardize the wind industry’s access to public lands and ability to kill bald and golden eagles.
Black’s direct outreach to lower-level employees working on the DRECP eventually resulted in a rebuke by the BLM’s State Director for California Jim Kenna, who reportedly told Black to stop calling employees working on the DRECP.
Director of FWS Dan Ashe told investigators that he had to complain to Interior leadership about Black’s meddling in FWS’ review of the BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar project impacts on the desert tortoise. According to the report, Black applied pressure directly to the field office responsible for evaluating the Ivanpah project’s impacts.
Black’s direct pressure on Interior employees involved in evaluating renewable energy projects apparently did not stop after Director Ashe expressed concerns, since that incident pre-dated Black’s outreach to employees working on the DRECP and his apparent engagement with a biologist working on another solar project in the Ivanpah Valley. A biologist interviewed for the IG report indicated that Black pressured her to change a biological opinion for a project proposed by First Solar. It is possible that the project in question is First Solar’s Silver State South project, which was the focus of contentious evaluation regarding the project’s impact on a desert tortoise habitat linkage in the Ivanpah Valley. However, the biologist told the IG that the biological opinion remained unchanged despite Black’s pressure, whereas the record shows that the biological opinion for Silver State South eventually was changed to make way for that project. It’s not clear from the IG report when they interviewed the biologist. Of note, First Solar sold the Silver State South project to NextEra Energy in October 2013, the same company that previously employed Black’s girlfriend as a lobbyist.
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