Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Renewable Energy Construction – Will Bureaucrat’s Romance Sidetrack Federal Policy Initiatives?

Steve Black, Counselor to the Secretary at the U. S. Department of The Interior, and chief architect of the Obama administration’s alternative energy policy initiatives, has been ordered by the department’s ethics office to recuse himself from all matters involving California wind and solar energy company NextEra, because of his romantic relationship with NextEra’s lobbyist Manal Yamout. Yamout, NextEra’s Director for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs, formerly served as special advisor for alternative energy to California governors Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jerry Brown. Black leads the federal Renewable Energy Policy Group, a network of senior federal and state energy officials who make key decisions on multimillion dollar solar and wind energy projects.

It was Black himself who brought the romance to the attention of Interior Department ethics officers last fall. Black, age 51, was counsel for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when Salazar was a Sentaor from Colorado.  Salazar brought Black over to Interior, and put him in charge of the Obama administration’s overall renewable energy planning effort, which President Obama is describing as his “all of the above” energy strategy on his two day campaign swing through Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma this week. The identical “all of the above” title has also been stamped onto Obama administration energy policy efforts by both Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney and Obama’s Chicago based campaign press official Ben LaBolt.

Conservationists working with the Interior Department on alternative energy policy initiatives have questioned Black’s ability to continue his policy leadership in light of the prohibition on involving himself in any matter affecting NextEra. Ileene Anderson, of the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of Black’s planning groups, says: “We’re looking at these large scale planning processes. It’s going to amend land management plans in perpetuity, essentially. 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.”

The same sentiments were echoed by Kern County, California, planning director Lorelei Oviatt, who also works with Black in her official capacity. “I absolutely see the concern,” Oviatt says. “I think the integrity of the process is very important. Landowners and public land users sometimes think the process is not fair and equitable. Anything that raises questions about the integrity of the process is not good.”

While NextEra asserts that Yamout, its Washington D.C. lobbyist since July 2011, has not engaged in any lobbying on its behalf with the Interior Department or the State of California since she was hired, it seems a lot of folks believe that pillow talk might be one of the most effective forms of lobbying.

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