Author Archives: Chris Clarke

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Ethical malfeasance and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Today’s the deadline for commenting on the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Many of the people I know have been putting in long hours for the last several months pulling their comments together on the plan, which is gargantuan.

The plan covers 22 million acres of the California desert, with a huge amount of land proposed as renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs) and an even huger amount proposed for a modicum of protection, but what that protection actually entails is a matter of both vagueness and controversy.

I suspect that most of the comments submitted by today on the DRECP will dive into the details to a formidable degree. One such set of comments, crafted by Basin and Range Watch, was so good I signed onto it myself.

But the comments I submitted today were very specific, and concerned an issue not addressed in the draft DRECP itself.

Here they are.


 

I am Chris Clarke, a resident of Joshua Tree in San Bernardino County, and of the 22-million-acres covered by the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). I work as a journalist covering renewable energy issues for KCET TV in Los Angeles, but I make these comments solely on my own behalf as a private citizen.

These comments are submitted in addition to a comment letter by Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, which I co-signed.

My comment here centers on the fact that the identification of Development Focus Areas (DFAs) in the draft DRECP has been tainted by an instance of personal malfeasance by high-ranking Interior Department staff, to the extent that the ecological and energy resource justifications for any of the wind-oriented DFAs are now likewise tainted with the prospect that they may have been tailored to maximize the personal gain of Interior Department brass rather than to either develop renewable energy or protect public lands’ biological resources.

On November 7, 2014, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General posted a report on its investigation of malfeasance by Steve Black, a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Interior’s lead on renewable energy siting. The report identified several areas in which Black at least appears to have improperly influenced renewable energy policy to benefit either his own professional advancement or that of his then-paramour, Manal Yamout, who at the time worked for NextEra Energy Resources.

According to that report, which I have attached, Black put pressure on federal agency staff preparing the draft DRECP to increase the acreage of wind-oriented Development Focus Areas in the draft DRECP. This pressure induced staff to reconsider areas they had previously ruled out as too ecologically sensitive or lacking in wind potential, or both.

At the time that Black pressured DRECP authors to increase the amount of acreage available in the draft DRECP’s wind DFAs, he was seeking employment as the Executive Director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Black did not notify the Interior Department of his conversations with AWEA until nearly two months after he pressured agency staff to add wind DFAs to the draft DRECP.

According to a timeline included in the Inspector General’s report, NextEra Energy Resources’ Vice President of Development, a member of AWEA’s board of directors, asked Black in early January of 2013 whether he should add Black’s name to a list of candidates for AWEA’s Executive Director position. Black agreed but asked that his interest in the position be kept quiet.

On January 11 of that year, Black received an email from the director of the California Wind Energy Association, a member group of AWEA, complaining that his group felt the draft DRECP should include far more wind development areas.

On January 17, says the Inspector General’s report, Black directed state and federal agency staff working on the draft DRECP to — in the words of the report — “find more areas in the plan for wind development.” The DRECP program manager — not identified by name in the Inspector General’s report, but presumably Vicki Campbell — told investigators, again in the words of the report, that

“she and other DRECP team members disagreed with Black about adding certain areas for renewable energy development to the DRECP because the areas were not biologically supportable. She said that the areas were ultimately added, but the DRECP team decided to add requirements for them to mitigate the environmental issues. She said this was one of the ways the team ‘dealt’ with Black’s involvement. She stated that DOI officials, including Black, also asked the team to find more areas for wind development in the DRECP, but doing so would be difficult in the desert because the eagles and condors that lived there were ‘not real compatible with giant spinning blades.’”

Black did not inform Interior Department ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position, according to the Inspector General’s report, until March 4, at which point he was informed that he “should not engage in matters that affected AWEA’s finances.”

Had Black informed Interior ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position when it first arose, in January, that proscription would assuredly have included intervening to increase the acreage available for wind development in the draft DRECP.

Black’s unethical tinkering in the DFA selection process is a matter of public record. And yet the draft DRECP contains no indication as to which DFAs may have been included or expanded as a result of Black’s influence.

And that means that those of us who are observing and commenting on the DRECP process can not extend our full confidence that those DFAs were selected and mapped under the highest scientific standards required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general best practices followed by the state and federal agencies contributing to the draft plan.

Ethical lapses like those Black committed must not be allowed to shape land management decisions and policy in the California Desert. At a very minimum, the Interior Department should fully disclose precisely which areas were added to the roster of wind Development Focus Areas as a result of Steve Black’s unethical influence into the process. Those DFAs should be removed from the final DRECP or else supported with the best available science to explain just why the initial decision by agency staff to exclude them from consideration should not be trusted.

Without such disclosure and transparency, the full plan will remain shadowed by the suspicion that the DFAs were chosen more to benefit Steve Black’s personal and financial well-being than to move California to a renewable energy future, or to protect its irreplaceable desert public lands.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

Chris Clarke

PO Box 1086
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
(213) 254-5382

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Heart

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I have a new family member.

Her name is Heart, named partly because of a black Valentine’s-heart-shaped patch on her left side, and partly because of who she is.

When I first met her, in November, she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with me. A series of events I can only guess at had persuaded her that most people, men especially, could not be trusted. She came to live with me in December — a dogsitting-fostering arrangement, I insisted, not to be considered permanent — and it took her several days to stop flinching violently when I’d absently reach to stroke her head.

After a while, in which I spent a lot of time moving very slowly and deliberately, and treating her according to a very smart friend’s advice, we won each other over just a bit.

That advice:

after gaining her trust with walks and ignoring and humor and nothing ever being a big deal, then you expose her to absolutely freaking everything so the shy doesn’t wreck her quality of life.

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Now, she’s devoted to me, and I am in my inevitably inferior, non-dog way, to her. Here’s Heart waking me up on my 55th birthday earlier this month:

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We walk four miles a day on average, and she is slowly starting to learn that words mean things, and she is training me how to listen to her so that she can tell me what she wants, and she leaps onto the bed each morning and wakes me by punching me in the face repeatedly.

We made the decision this week to make our collegial relationship a permanent one. No one who knows me is the slightest bit surprised, excepting me.

Life is good.

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Decision

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I stood tonight at sundown at the south edge of the Mojave National Preserve after a day spent seeing one wonderful aspect of the Mojave after another and the thought came to me: “I live here.”

It’s not the first time I’ve had the thought, but it struck me hard tonight.

This late summer I made one of the hardest, most personably frightening decisions I’ve ever made. It felt correct at the time even when I feared its consequences most.

Had that decision gone the other way, I realized, I would have had to amend my thought to “I could have lived here.”

As painful as that decision was at the time, I have never been more convinced that I chose the proper path this past early September.

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Last night’s dream, still not completely shaken

It was bad news from the oncologist. Multiple myeloma, the same as killed my grandfather when he was just two years older than I am now, and I walked the street in a daze at the prognosis. Four months tops, he’d said, and that was after I cajoled him for optimism, talked about outliers and long right-hand tails of bell curves and essays by Stephen J. Gould.

Four months.

February.

She was waiting for me in the park, right where she’d said she’d be when we parted that morning. Behind her a brilliant blaze of California poppies in full orange bloom, a sky uninterrupted by clouds. She saw me, beamed. She looked so happy.

How would I tell her?

I reached her, sat next to her on the bench. I forced a smile. She looked so happy. Impossibly black eyes gleaming the way they always did. Melted me, the way they always did. How had I lived for so long without her? How could I possibly leave her alone in just four months?

Time to break her heart.

“I have some news,” I told her.

She took my hand in both of hers, shook it a little side to side in not-at-all contained joy. She radiated joy. She shone at me.

“So do I,” she said.

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Found while reading the Draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

“Siting renewable energy only on private land would not provide balance or flexibility in siting renewable energy development because there is limited private land throughout the DRECP Planning Area and the private land does not always correlate with areas with the highest energy resource values. In some instances, development on private land would not align with existing transmission corridors. Meeting statewide and federal renewable energy goals within the DRECP planning area boundary exclusively on private lands would result in substantial conflicts with current and proposed land uses on private lands. Some counties expressed concern that development of renewable energy on private land could impact county land-use programs and controls, and could negatively affect local economies, county resources, local character, jobs, property tax revenue, agriculture, and recreation and historical resources (County of Riverside 2011a, DRECP 2011a). Private lands that were not incorporated into the analyzed alternatives have high biological resource conflicts and do not align with DRECP purpose and need. For these reasons, the Private and Previously Disturbed Lands Alternative was not retained.”

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What she asked; what I did not say

thin dark hand on mine
nails tracing tendons
she looked up.
“Why do you like me?”

my heart a well,
dark bottom unseen.
sounds of tossed pebbles fade
long before they might surface.

now a swift red-tail hawk
stripes the bottomless blue sky.
her eyes scan each rock
shining brilliant dark brown.

I would stand with her
I would stand with her
I would stand with her
and fill this void with stones.

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Heartbreak and Ivanpah; Ivanpah and heartbreak

Sometimes, reflected glory burns too bright.
Sometimes, your feathery integument
ignites, and all that’s left: the earth approaching
stony swift. Decisions loom, and sad ones;
stay the course you set despite the certainty
of impact? Veer away from the bright light
that’s tempted you this far? There’s no real hope
of happy endings here. All that remains:
the strain of scorched, dis-feathered wing against
the unforgiving air, inevitable
contact with the earth, gorge-rising fear,
while those below you on the distant ground
see nothing but a bright, leisurely arc
and slow, and blinding white against the blue
and desert sky, almost ethereal
in your terminal agony; a wing
turned meteor, and all your nesting hopes
however long postponed, fall fluttering
as useless ash onto the desert stones.