Romance May Have Derailed Science in California Energy Development

Steve Black, Ken Salazar, and Arnold Schwarzenegger tour NextEra's Harper Lake solar facility | Photo: Courtesy House Natural Resources Committee
Steve Black, Ken Salazar, and Arnold Schwarzenegger tour NextEra's Harper Lake solar facility | Photo: Courtesy House Natural Resources Committee

A newly released report by the Interior Department's investigative office reveals that a high-ranking department official may have intervened on behalf of a renewable energy firm while dating an executive in that firm, and pressured federal scientists to soften their opposition to renewable energy development.

The report by Interior's Office of the Inspector General detailed potential improper conduct by Steve Black, who worked as senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for energy, environment, and natural resources policy. While he held this position Black dated NextEra Energy Resources lobbyist Manal Yamout, a conflict as Black oversaw several applications by Yamout's employer to build wind and solar facilities on public land.

Black, who now works for the law firm Bingham McCutcheon, worked at Interior from the onset of the Obama administration in January 2009 through May 2013. He and Yamout had met in 2009, when she worked as an adviser to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on renewable energy policy. Yamout joined the Florida-based NextEra in August 2011, the same month in which she and Black became romantically involved.

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Yamout left NextEra in November 2013 and is now Vice President of Policy and Markets at the Bay Area-based storage firm Advanced Microgrid Solutions

As we reported in 2013, the relationship between Black and Yamout spanned a period in which Interior Department agencies, working under Black, were deciding whether or not to approve NextEra's Genesis and McCoy solar projects on public lands in Riverside County. Both were eventually approved.

The report indicates that prior to his close friendship with Yamout turning romantic, Black may well have also influenced the decision to allow NextEra's North Sky River wind project to be built in Kern County's desert mountains without an Environmental Impact Statement. The less-stringent Environmental Assessment was allowed after the route of a transmission line connecting the proposed project to the grid was moved off public land, allowing the Bureau of Land Management to declare that the project would have no significant environmental impact on public lands. Had a full Environmental Impact Statement been required, North Sky River would have come under the scrutiny of USFWS biologists, who would have examined the project's likely impact on protected species, including golden eagles and the federally Endangered California condor.

According to the report, the BLM sent USFWS a memo on April 15, 2011, asking that the wildlife agency examine the impact of the project's turbines on the condor. In response, says the report, on May 10 2011,

On July 5 of that year, the report continues,

Yamout accepted a job with NextEra a week later on July 12.

A month after the North Sky River project began operation in December 2012, its turbines killed a federally protected golden eagle.

Less directly connected to his romantic relationship with Yamout, the Inspector General's report also indicates that Steve Black put pressure on federal scientists who had raised ecological objections to full-scale renewable energy development in the California desert, including BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project and an unspecified First Solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.

In addition, in January 2013 Black put pressure on state and federal agency staff to include more wind energy development areas in the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, or DRECP, after receiving an email from the executive director of the California Wind Energy Association complaining that the DRECP was excluding wind development from too much of the plan's 22.5 million acres. At the time, Black was applying for the job of CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, of which the California Wind Energy Organization is a state chapter.

Federal ethics rules do not expressly prohibit romantic relationships between regulators and representatives of the companies they oversee unless those relationships involve shared finances, but the rules do strongly encourage staff to recuse themselves from decisions or discussions in which romantic partners are directly involved.

While Yamout notified NextEra of her relationship with Black promptly, and recused herself from discussions involving the Interior Department, the report shows that Black refused to recuse himself from NextEra-related discussions or decisions until March 2012, eight months after becoming involved with Yamout. That's despite frequent pointed requests from Interior legal and ethics staff that Black do so. According to the report, Black only recused himself after complaints about apparent impropriety from unnamed sources working on California renewable energy projects came to the attention of then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.

During the period between the onset of his relationship with Yamout and his eventual acquiescence to a recusal, says the report, Black also opposed efforts to persuade his deputy to recuse herself from NextEra-related matters. The report does not identify that deputy, but according to a report released in September by the House Committee on Natural Resources, that deputy was Janea Scott, a former attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund who became a close friend of Yamout's.

Since April 2013, Scott has served as a California Energy Commissioner, where she may soon be deciding on a proposal by Yamout's current employer, Advanced Microgrid Systems, to redraft state utility policy in ways that may well make sense, but which would also offer a significant potential financial benefit to her friend's firm.

As part of its investigation, the Office of the Inspector General also determined that Black had received $1,183 worth of so-called "items of value" from NextEra, mainly consisting of lodging and meals for events he attended with Yamout. Black reimbursed NextEra for those items of value after his interview with the Inspector General's investigators.

As regards to interference with government scientists, the report details several agency heads from USFWS director Dan Ashe to California BLM chief Jim Kenna being compelled to order Black not to contact or harass their field staff. As the report says,

The BLM's Kenna informed investigators that after hearing Black had contacted the DRECP's Program Manager (Vicki Campbell, though she's not identified by name in the report), Kenna had told Black to contact him directly rather than his staff so that staff would be spared the possibility that their judgment would be "colored by political considerations."

It's a bit of a shame Campbell isn't identified by name in the report, because she gets one of the document's best lines:

The report doesn't mention which of the DRECP's Development Focus Areas were retained at Black's insistence over the objections of staff. Knowing which DFAs were there because Black insisted on their inclusion as he was seeking a job with a wind trade group would be a handy piece of information for participants in the ongoing public comment period.

In fact, Black may even be partly responsible for the much-commented-on delay in the DRECP's appearance, according to a USFWS staff member also unnamed in the report:

The Inspector General's office provided the report to the U.S. Attorney General, who reportedly declined to consider prosecuting Black. The report now goes on file at the Interior Department.

ReWire will attempt to find out which Development Focus Areas in the DRECP were retained at Black's insistence and if we find out, we'll let you know.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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