Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Soda Mountain: A Test of Landscape Level Planning

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to conclude its environmental review of the Soda Mountain Solar project - one of the most contentious utility-scale solar projects currently being reviewed for construction on public lands - any day now.  The release of the final environmental impact statement for the Soda Mountain Solar project is overdue, almost certainly a result of inter-agency wrangling following the publication of the draft environmental analysis that underplayed the potential impact of the project on natural springs critical to desert wildlife, and the area's potential to restore habitat connectivity for bighorn sheep.  Also at stake is whether or not the BLM will ignore landscape-level planning that has identified the proposed solar project site as critical for wildlife.

The sweeping creosote bush and white bursage scrub pictured above would be graded and bulldozed for the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

Wildlife Crossing or Industrial Zone?

The Department of Interior has pursued a “landscape-scale approach to identify and facilitate investment in key conservation priorities in a region” (Secretarial Order 3330) to avoid the type of conflict presented by the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project and to protect wildlife that face increased threats as a result of climate change.  The draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) - Interior's flagship landscape-scale planning effort - stresses the need for a bighorn sheep crossing at Interstate-15 between the Soda Mountains and Cronese mountains to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity. (DRECP, Appendix C, pages 9, and 38-39)  These plans are embedded in the DRECP's biological goals and objectives that provide the foundation for the BLM's conservation efforts in the California desert for the next 25 years.  Interior will now have to choose whether to follow the biological goals and objectives of a landscape-level planning effort in which it is heavily invested, or give the go-ahead for bulldozers to once again threaten the intactness of an ecosystem.

Biologists note that the proposed wildlife crossing at Soda Mountains is important for bighorn sheep because the species is beginning to experience genetic isolation as a result of highways preventing intermingling of sheep populations across the desert.  No other location along Interstate 15 is likely to have as much success encouraging bighorn sheep migration and inter-mingling, and if populations of bighorn sheep remain more isolated they can become more vulnerable to disease and extirpation.  This is why landscape-level planning is so important - to identify these very conservation priorities and ensure a resilient ecosystem.  BLM approval of the Soda Mountain Solar project would undermine the DRECP before it is even finalized, and once again confirm criticism that science takes a back seat to industry influence.

A video by the Arizona Game and Fish Department underscores the potential to restore habitat connectivity with wildlife crossings, like this one over Highway 93 in Arizona.


The Soda Mountain Solar project would pose a number of other threats to wildlife.  The project would drain groundwater and likely endanger natural springs at Zyzzx that are home to the endangered Mohave tui chub (a small fish endemic to the Mojave) and where bighorn sheep slake their thirst.  To make way for the giant mirrors, Bechtel would bulldoze nearly 3.4 square miles of the creosote bush scrub habitat in between Interstate-15 and the Soda Mountains, which currently provides habitat for kit fox and western burrowing owls.

Bechtel Ignoring Alternative Locations

The  National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency both submitted letters critical of the BLM's environmental analysis, and community and conservation groups have implored Interior and Bechtel to consider alternative locations for the solar project.  Bechtel does not yet have a power purchase agreement with a utility company willing to buy electricity from the project, so Bechtel has time to consider a less destructive location.  But the environmental impact statement dismisses other locations, in part because Bechtel claims that it is too difficult to find private lands large enough to accommodate its 358 megawatt project close enough to transmission lines.

Bechtel's claim regarding the lack of alternative locations is clearly misleading; there are several large-scale solar projects under construction or completed on private lands, to include Sun Power's 579 megawatt Solar Star project in the Antelope Valley.  And Bechtel has not even secured an interconnection agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the company that owns the transmission lines running near the Soda Mountains.  So the value of the nearby transmission lines is hypothetical, and the inability to find a feasible alternative site on private lands is dubious. 

One thing is for sure,  Bechtel and BLM put much less rigor into consideration of alternative locations than the DRECP put into identifying the Soda Mountain area as important for wildlife.  Yet Bechtel may just get its way, natural springs may dry up, and we will lose an opportunity to restore bighorn sheep migration across the Mojave.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How Much Is Rooftop Solar Worth?

While we were focused last month on reviewing thousands of pages of proposed land management plans that would encourage utility-scale renewable energy projects across the California and Nevada desert, a seemingly obscure ruling by an administrative law judge quietly dismissed a key argument activists use in defense of wildlands and wildlife - that distributed generation is a better alternative to utility-scale renewable energy because it does not require the destruction of intact wildlands.  The ruling (.pdf) was part of an initial step by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to determine the price utility companies pay for energy generated by rooftop solar projects, known as net-metering.

Reading the statements and briefs submitted by various interests involved in CPUC's effort to determine how much rooftop solar is worth can seem almost perfunctory and sober to someone who cares a lot about the landscapes affected by large-scale energy generation of any kind - fossil fuels and renewables.  I imagine it would feel the same way for soldiers and citizens of two war-torn countries if they had to listen to their elites banter back and forth in protocol-smothered negotiations seeking token face-saving measures to allow peace.  Do the people at the table understand the consequences and implications of the outcome?  With mountains on the east coast stripped of their coal to feed noxious power plants, and mountains in the west capped with hundreds of 400 foot tall bird and bat-killing wind turbines to power our air conditioners, rooftop solar is an obvious escape from the violence of our current energy paradigm that has ravaged our land and wildlife over the past century.  The value that CPUC ultimately sets on the energy generated from solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots will affect how much and how quickly we can generate energy in our cities, rather than destroy our wildlands.

Here is some context for what CPUC is doing.  Today, if someone in California installs solar panels on their home or business they can benefit from lower utility bills, and they will be compensated at the full retail rate for any surplus energy generated by the solar panels that is shared with the grid.  However, CPUC was tasked by California legislators in 2013 to determine an accurate value for the energy generated by rooftop solar panels (I will call it rooftop solar, but a person might have panels installed over parking lots, or in their own backyard).  As you might expect, utility companies want the value to be much lower to protect their own outdated business model.

A pile of Joshua Trees removed to make way for the Alta Wind Energy Center near Mojave, California.  Photo by Friend of Mojave.
Utility companies argue that people with rooftop solar panels do not pay their fair share of what it costs to maintain a large and expensive transmission and distribution grid, as if every component of that destructive system is assumed to be desired and necessary.  What utility companies do not say is that they oppose a fair value for rooftop solar because such compensation will encourage more people to install rooftop solar panels, and when more people generate their own energy, utility compy profits nose-dive.  Why?  Because utility companies make their money on building remote, centralized power plants that require new transmission infrastructure.  If a utility company upgrades or builds new transmission lines, not only do they charge ratepayers for the material and labor, but the utilities are also allowed to collect a roughly 10% rate of return on the infrastructure.  That is a higher rate of return than most businesses could expect from their investments, but utility companies receive this rate as default because it it set by California regulators.  That is why central station power plants built in the remote desert are a dream come true for utility companies - they get to justify expensive (and thus, profitable) upgrades to the transmission system.  We pay the costs, we lose wildlife and land, and a select few get wealthier.

Victor Valley College installed solar over some of its parking lots, generating clean energy and saving money on its energy bills. A much more sane alternative to bulldozing desert wildlands.
So the December administrative law ruling is contentious because it identifies the scope of factors that will be considered in determining the value of rooftop solar.  While the ruling did indicate that the avoided transmission costs should be included in the consideration of rooftop solar's value, the judge ruled that avoided land use impacts would not be considered.  In a statement from Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company opposed the inclusion of avoided land use impacts and avoided societal costs of carbon as "illusory or ill-defined."  Illusory!  Bulldozers scraping deserts and mountains are far from illusory.  And the health impacts of fossil fuel plants are obvious to those that suffer asthma or living with the effects of climate change.  The utility companies want CPUC to treat rooftop solar as existing in some sterile vacuum where the underlying assumption is that central station power plants and a behemoth transmission grid are necessities, and where people are "customers" and not hikers, campers, and individuals that care about wildlands and healthy communities. 

This photo shows less than one-third of the Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert.  Nearly 5.6 square miles of high quality and diverse Mojave Desert habitat was bulldozed or mowed down to make way for this project far from our cities.  It required a multi-million dollar transmission line upgrade.
The immense societal costs of fossil fuels - such as avoided carbon emissions and health impacts - may be considered in the valuation of rooftop solar, but it is not clear to what extent.  The ruling in December, however, made it clear that avoided land use impacts would not be considered.  Determining a value of rooftop solar without appropriately acknowledging land use impacts and the societal costs of fossil fuel generation would embed a considerable flaw in California's energy market.  Land use impacts of both utility-scale fossil fuels and renewable energy are a key reason distributed generation - such as rooftop solar - should constitute a larger bulk of our generation capacity.  Encouraging robust deployment of rooftop solar and avoiding destruction of the land can address a number of environmental problems, including habitat loss, dust pollution (PM10) caused by ground disturbing activities,  groundwater depletion and contamination, and loss of outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Habitat loss is chief among these impacts, and it is recognized as one of the most critical threats to many wildlife species; building utility-scale energy plants adds to the problem.  The Ivanpah Solar project alone destroyed nearly 5.6 square miles of amazing desert wildlands, and now burns birds and insects in super-heated air created by its mirrors.   First Solar is now adding to the destruction in the Ivanpah Valley, bulldozing several more square miles of an important desert tortoise habitat corridor, and one of the company's two projects has already displaced over 150 of the the beleaguered animals.  It is difficult to put a monetary value on this destruction, but both companies have paid a total of tens of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to compensate for the destruction.
If you want to follow the CPUC proceeding (known as "R1407001") you can read documents and subscribe to receive e-mail updates here.  CPUC is expected to determine a value by December 2015, but you can see above that important decisions are being made much sooner. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tortoise Toll Mounts at Nevada Solar Project

First Solar's Silver State South project has displaced over 152 desert tortoises, according to data obtained by Basin and Range Watch, and this toll is expected to rise since construction crews have not yet finished bulldozing the threatened animal's habitat.  The Silver State South solar project is being built just east of Primm, Nevada on 3.7 square miles of intact Mojave Desert habitat that biologists have determined to be a key corridor for the desert tortoise - facilitating genetic flow for the species that is important for its survival in the face of many anthropogenic threats, including climate change.

A giant cholla cactus on the site of First Solar's Silver State South Solar project.  This cactus' size suggests it has survived for a long time in the arid and harsh climate of the Mojave Desert, but it will be destroyed to make way for an energy project that allows us to charge our iPhones and run our air conditioners.  The same solar panels that will displace this desert habitat can just as easily, and more efficiently be placed on rooftops or over parking lots.
Of the 152 tortoises displaced, 63 are adult and 89 are juvenile, indicating that First Solar chose a bad location for its solar project.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion, the project is expected to displace as many as 115 adult desert tortoises, and the Department of Interior will likely have to halt construction and re-evaluate impacts if the number of adult tortoises found exceeds 107.   Although many of these tortoises will be relocated to other parts of the desert, their chances for survival are dim because they will compete with other tortoises for resources and be more vulnerable to predators.  Environmental groups sought to halt the solar project earlier this year because of its poor location, but failed to secure an injunction from the court.


The Silver State South solar project further underscores the need for better planning and a focus on policies that encourage solar in our cities - such as solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots - rather than solar on desert wildlands.  Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the southern Nevada region that proposes to encourage energy and mining development on even more of the tortoise's habitat.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Overriding Considerations and the War on Carbon

The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed by author Rebecca Solnit questioning our concern for the fate of wildlife as we rapidly expand renewable energy generation.  Ms. Solnit's point seems to be that the climate catastrophe poses far too great of a threat to be concerned for the death of wildlife at solar and wind energy projects.  I think it is very timely that her op-ed was published at the same time that our country is left trying to explain why the torture of a few was necessary for the defense of many.  When we are left questioning why we should compromise on our values in the pursuit of victory in war. 

A swallow found dead at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar power project, almost certainly burned by the "solar flux" - superheated air - generated by the project's thousands of giant mirrors.
I would like to argue that Ms. Solnit is missing the point, and that every life has value, including every single bird and insect burned at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, or any burrowing owl that loses its habitat to the effects of climate change.   But she raises a compelling point - climate will bring destruction on a mass scale, and terrorize ecosystems and human communities alike.  As we continue to burn coal and natural gas, human towns will be washed away by rising seas, and we will witness the disappearance of shore bird nests, the hunting grounds of puffins, the homes of polar bears, and stands of Joshua trees.

Climate change is indeed a menace and I agree with Ms. Solnit that it deserves the effort of every individual to address.  However,  climate change is the consequence of our excesses as a human society - the rich flying private jets from coast to coast, and the poor watching television after a long day's work.  We are all using energy - to varying degrees - and it is incumbent that we all pay the price and voluntarily change our habits.  It is foolish and abhorrent to post photos of burned birds - as the New York Times did - and broadcast a morally blind rhetoric that wildlife needs to "suck it up" and take one for the team in our war on carbon; a war in which the enemy and the victor are the same - human beings.

A construction marker placed in the pristine Ivanpah Valley before BrightSource Energy bulldozers destroyed over 5 square miles of desert habitat, displaced or killed over 150 desert tortoises, and began to incinerate countless birds and insects.
I would like to make this very point, but I don't believe many individuals are ready to erase so many barriers between themselves and other life forms on this planet. We are constantly placed in the role of placing a value on life.  We do it to fellow humans, and we have certainly had no problem playing the self-appointed role of judge and God against other species.   We determine the acceptability of the loss of life based on the disturbance it causes in our own - for Ms. Solnit, the burned sparrows are of little consequence when she apparently feels it is incumbent upon herself to command the troops against the invisible enemy.  Slay the birds, tortoises, and ancient yucca and creosote in our quest to defeat our own dependence on fossil fuels.  Is this justice, or is it the same bullshit we have been spewing for the past century in pursuit of our manifest destiny to conquer the wilds of the Earth in service of human desire.   For what do we sacrifice the biodiversity of this planet?  The ability to charge our iPhones, light our patios, and record our favorite TV shows?

I do not expect that every watt of renewable energy will come from rooftops - primarily because I don't expect that a system built upon the consolidation of wealth among the few will let go of the golden egg of our centralized power system so easily.  But I do think it is our responsibility to scrutinize our impacts - whether they are the result of fossil fuels or renewable energy - and strive to reduce our demands on this planet and our fellow species.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Conservation Legislation Loaded with Poison Pills

Congress may grant public lands some new conservation designations before the end of the year, but at a substantial cost.   The House of Representatives and Senate have agreed on draft legislation that will pair conservation proposals with land transfers and special allowances for the mining, timber, grazing and energy interests.  The Senate is expected to pass the bill, which also includes the long-sought Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument north of Las Vegas.  In the last days of a Democrat-controlled Senate, it is a dismal sign of the times to come if even "bi-partisan" conservation deals are so heavily laden with gifts to industry.

Nevada's New Monument

If the legislation passes the Senate - a move expected within the next week - it would establish the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument on over 22,000 acres just north of Las Vegas.  However, the monument would come with its own dose of destructive compromises.  The bill directs the National Park Service to allow for a 400-foot wide right-of-way for future transmission lines and a 100-foot wide right-of-way for a potential water pipeline through the new monument.  The bill also sets up the transfer of hundreds of acres public land to Clark County in the Ivanpah Valley in support of plans to build an airport there, just north of Primm.  Although plans for the airport are temporarily shelved, Las Vegas is likely to revive the plans when McCarran International  begins to reach capacity.

Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area Safe?

A previous version of the legislation establishing the monument also included a provision that would have released over 10,000 acres of the Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area for multiple use.  Although the Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting the current bill will do just that, it appears to me that this particular provision was not included in the version passed by the House.  The Instant Study Area is essentially managed as a wilderness study area, and cannot be designated released to a  "multiple use" designation until Congress makes a decision on its fate.  At least two rare plants can be found in the Instant Study Area - the Las Vegas Bearpoppy and Ivory-spined agave.   Continuing to manage this area for conservation can help preserve land on the eastern boundary of the growing Las Vegas metropolis for future generations to experience and explore.



Zoom in or download the map to view the boundaries of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, as well as the location of the Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area (darker brown area in the bottom right corner).

Similarly Mixed Bag Up North

But the compromises included in the creation of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument are just the beginning.  Other "conservation" legislation bundled into the National Defense Authorization Act will transfer even more land to private interest.   Thousands of acres of public lands would be transferred to private hands in northern Nevada near Yerington and Fernly, including lands intended to facilitate the expansion of a copper mine.  Elsewhere in the legislation are provisions that would terminate 26,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas, and allow clear cut removal of old growth forest in Alaska.  The bill also includes language that would streamline the permitting of livestock grazing on public lands by gutting environmental review.

In return, Congress will designate approximately 245,000 acres of Wilderness areas, nearly half of which are already managed for wilderness quality.  Of those Wilderness areas, 75,000 acres would be designated in northern Nevada in Lyon and Humboldt Counties. 



Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Close the Coolwater Natural Gas Plant

San Bernardino County's ozone levels are ridiculous.  According to the Los Angeles Times, San Bernardino can reach ozone levels of 107 parts per billion (ppb), which is bad for our health and the environment.  The current standard for ozone levels is 75 ppb, set by the Bush administration, but even this is seen as too high.  The Obama administration is proposing to adjust the standard down to 65 - 70 ppb.  Whether we stick with the unhealthy standard of 75 ppb, or go lower, San Bernardino Count has clearly been negligent in addressing a serious health problem, and should be conisdering bold steps to clean up its act.  One obvious step would be to shut down the Coolwater natural gas plant just east of Barstow in the heart of San Bernardino County. 

This old natural gas facility is reaching the end of its life, and contributes to congestion on power lines that inhibits the addition of renewable energy.  Southern California Edison (SCE) - the local utility company that also buys power from the natural gas plant - wants to build nearly 75 miles of expensive new transmission lines (the proposed Coolwater-Lugo transmission line) that would give it the option to keep the natural gas plant online.  Although SCE claims the primary reason for the new transmission line is to connect the Abengoa Mojave Solar project built west of Barstow,  SCE probably could accomodate much more of Abengoa's solar energy if it did not also have to accomodate energy from the natural gas plant on transmission lines. 

The natural gas plant is in need of an overhaul, according to NRG testimony, and NRG may begin shutting down generators at Coolwater in 2018.  NRG does not see much sense in reinvesting in Coolwater if SCE continues its short-term power purchase agreements.  So why don't we just rip the band-aid off and close Coolwater, avoid expensive transmission costs, and clean up our air? Energy storage for rooftop solar and solar on already-disturbed lands almost certainly could help offset the loss of Coolwater's energy production, without the harmful emissions.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Silurian Valley Spared by BLM

If you have ever been to the Silurian Valley, you know it is one of those grand places that inspires and beckons you to pull over, get out of your car, and hike.  After driving on Interstate 15 from Barstow, the Silurian Valley is a strong dose of tranquility, providing relief from the traffic, billboards and franchise restaurants of our Anthropocentric world and what Aldo Leopold called the "epidemic of geometry."  As you drive up the two-lane Death Valley Road,  you leave behind the sight of the small highway outpost of Baker and you are swallowed by the immensity of the Silurian Valley. It is just you and the narrow road dividing thousands of acres of wilderness on either side.  This week, Jim Kenna, the State Director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California, spared this place for future generations to experience when he rejected plans by Spain-based Iberdrola to build the Aurora Solar project.

The Silurian Valley, with the Avawatz Mountains far in the distance.  Even further in the background is the southern portion of Death Valley National Park.
Kenna's decision represents a significant milestone under the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development policy, which seeks to encourage industrial-scale solar energy development in identified "Solar Energy Zones" (SEZ) while applying a more rigorous criteria against projects proposed outside of those zones in areas called "variance" lands.  Iberdrola's Aurora Solar project is the first project to be considered under this variance process in California. 

Rigorous Criteria

The BLM evaluated Iberdrola's proposal against 24 different factors, ranging from the availability of space in existing solar energy zones, impacts on sensitive wildlife and cultural resources.  The project was proposed for a location well over 100 miles away from the nearest SEZ.  The BLM's decision noted that the Riverside East and Chocolate Mountain SEZs both have thousands of acres of land available for new projects, so the destruction of the Silurian Valley was unnecessary.

Native Americans, explorers and traders traversed the Silurian Valley on the Old Spanish Trail that connected Sante Fe, New Mexico with Los Angeles.  The trail crossed the southwestern desert with short distances between natural sources of water - springs still used by wildlife today. Visitors to the Silurian Valley can experience a landscape that still looks much like the way it did to travelers nearly 200 years ago.  There are not that many places in the lower 48 United States where our natural heritage remains so intact; an industrial-scale facility of any kind in the Silurian Valley would dominate the viewshed and undermine the cultural and scenic value of the area.  The BLM's decision notes that the cultural resources of the Silurian Valley weighed heavily in the BLM's rejection of Iberdrola's variance application. 

The BLM also looks at a project's ability to use existing infrastructure when proposing to build a facility outside of a SEZ.  The BLM found that Iberdrola's proposed solar project would require over 40 miles  of new access roads.  And although Iberdrola said it planned to connect its solar project to a nearby LADWP transmission line, it had not yet secured an agreement from LADWP to do so.  If LADWP rejected its interconnection request, Iberdrola's project would require many miles of new transmission lines through the desert to reach other transmission facilities near Primm, Nevada.

The BLM's review of the project application found conflicting views regarding the value of wildlife habitat in the Silurian Valley.  While a Western Governors Council habitat evaluation tool noted only moderate values for wildlife in the Silurian Valley, this tool probably lacks the local detail necessary to make site-specific decisions.  In a letter to the BLM regarding the Silurian Valley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted the importance of the area's intact desert habitat as a key east/west linkage for the desert tortoise.  The FWS also noted that a solar project could become a trap for migratory birds.  Nearby dry lake beds fill up with water after rains, and attract a variety of bird species; these birds could easily mistake a shimmering solar plant for a body of water.

What's Next?

The next major policy decision for the Silurian Valley will be whether or not to keep the Special Analysis Area (SAA) that the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) included in the area.  The fate of the Special Analysis Areas will be decided before the DRECP is finalized - they will either become development focus areas or set aside for conservation.  The BLM's decision to reject Iberdrola's solar application in the Silurian Valley suggests that the Special Analysis Area there stands a better chance of becoming part of the DRECP's conservation lands, but we will only know when the BLM announces its decisions on the Special Analysis Areas.

In the meantime, Iberdrola has 30 days to appeal the BLM's decision to reject the Aurora Solar project, but this is likely to be a steep battle.  Even if the Department of Interior asked the BLM to take another look at its decision,  grassroots and national-level environmental organizations have spoken out against the project.  If BLM ultimately allows the project to go through the full environmental review process, it is likely to be contentious and costly for Iberdrola.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

Investigation Sheds Light on Industry Influence over Desert Policy

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.

The Mojave yucca above are going to be bulldozed to make way for First Solar's Silver State South solar project.  Steve Black pressured a biologist to change the biological opinion regarding the impacts of an unspecified First Solar project on the desert tortoise.  Although the IG report does not specify which project was involved, the Silver State South project is a likely candidate.
Ivanpah

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.