By Miriam Raftery
November 12, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico met with Steve Black, a senior counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, on February 28, 2012 and sent Black a letter on March 5, 2012 asking him to visit Ocotillo to address tribal concerns over desecration of cultural resources from the proposed Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility (which was since approved and built). Donna Tisdale, then with Protect Our Communities, has documents showing Black was also involved with federal approval of the controversial Tule Wind project, fielding requests from Iberdrola Renewables to help gain approval of the project in East County despite concerns about eagles.
Neither Pico nor Tisdale had any idea that Black was dating an energy company lobbyist at the time – or that he sought to gain a job as chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the wind industry's trade group, while still employed at the Department of the Interior. But an investigation by the Department of Interior's Inspector General has raised these concerns and more.
Now, an investigative report (http://www.doi.gov/oig/news/investigative-report-of-steve-black.cfm) just released by the Department of the Interior reveals, Black inappropriately attempted to pressure officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)to move renewable energy projects forward despite serious environmental concerns. The report also cites concerns over his romantic relationship with NextEra lobbyist Manal Yamout, whom he first met in 2009, when she formerly worked on renewable energy matters for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.Manal and Black became romantically involved with in summer of 2011, but Black did not recuse himself from handling NextEra project until March 8, 2012.
Before recusing himself, he was involved in permitting issues for NextEra projects directly and also referred a NextEra solar project directly to the White House for a list of priority projects, the report reveals.
The report also raised concerns over his close friendships with other NextEra lobbyists and over NextEra paying for Black’s hotel rooms and meals when he took business trips with his lobbyist/girlfriend.
“Some FWS and BLM employees relayed concerns about receiving pressure from Black to reexamine their scientific opinions and make unsupportable changes to renewable-energy-related projects,” the report states. Among the projects specifically mentioned in the report that Black sought to push through over objections of federal wildlife experts were two large solar projects in Ivanpah Valley in the Mojave Desert, as well as the controversial Desert Renewable Energy Plan (DREP) which seeks to open up 22 million acres of California Desert to renewable.
But did he also push Salazar to sign approvals for the Ocotillo Wind Energy Project, which was built, and Tule Wind in McCain Valley, which was approved by Salazar but is still awaiting final approval from the state? While these were not NextEra projects, might Black have helped push them through in order to curry favor with the wind industry while seeking a job as CEO of AWEA, the wind industry’s trade association? The dealings smack of at least a perceived conflict of interest. Yet DOI’s ethics official has claimed that Black did not violate regulations by seeking employment with AWEA while still on the federal payroll, ostensibly watching out for taxpayers’ interests.
E-mails included in the Inspector General of the Dept. of the Interior’s report further found 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 Mojave Desert Blog reports.
House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) says the report highlights “troubling” potential conflicts of interest by Black. “It’s evident there are ongoing problems with the Interior Department’s ethics program that need to be addressed so that accountability and transparency can be restored,” E&E News reported on November 7, 2014.
DOI Investigators were tipped off by FWS agents in March 2013 that Black was dating a lobbyist for NextEra Energy Resources, which has both wind and solar projects. Black recused himself form NextEra matters – but only after he’d been dating the company’s lobbyist for months. While the lobbyist told investigators that she had recused herself form NextEra’s DOI projects, “we found evidence that she remained involved with some of them,” the report found.
Black met with Viejas Chairman Pico back in 2012 along with then Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, also a controversial figure who was formerly a lobbyist for Sempra Energy, corporate owner of San Diego Gas & Electric Company who pushed through approval of the Sunrise Powerlink and was involved in other major energy projects while at the Department of the Interior, leading many to question his loyalties and past industry ties.
As for NextEra, the company is now proposing to build a solar facility in Jacumba here in San Diego’s East County, as East Count Magazine recently reported.
The investigation into the actions of Black and NextEra’s lobbyist is not the first time NextEra’s tactics have raised controversies.
NextEra was named number among electric and gas utilities on Fortune magazine’s list of “world’s most admired companies.” But the company has also drawn strong criticism from Native Americans over desecration of sacred geoglyphs, from neighbors of wind projects over NextEra’s heavy-handed tactics toward those who oppose its projects, and from environmentalists over birds killed at its Genesis Solar project.
The company’s Blythe Millennial and McCoy desert solar projects were approved by the BLM despite widespread opposition from Native Americans over destruction or desecration of ancient sacred geoglyphs, as ECM previously reported. Alfredo Figueroa, Founder of of La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, says there is “no way that any of these sites can be mitigated.” The Congress of American Indians, Colorado Indian Tribes, Intertribal Council of Arizona and the Committee on Chicano Rights all opposed the projects, where several giant geoglyphs believed to be thousands of years old, have been destroyed.
NextEra also sued a Canadian activist for trademark infringement after she posted a video of an eagle nest being destroyed to make way for a NextEra wind turbine, along with a parody of the company’s logo which read “Next Terror.”
Despite Black's apparent conflicts of interest, no charges have been filed against him or against his lobbyist ladyfriend.
Black has since left the Department of the Interior and now works for Bingham McCutchen, a law firm specializing in global financial services firms, according to his Linked In Profile.