A top federal official working on Arctic refuge oil development is resigning

Joe Balash's resignation comes after investigations into the accelerated environmental review process in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By Melody Schreiber - August 23, 2019
Outgoing Interior Department Assistant Secretary Joe Balash, shown here during a March hearing, has been instrumental in moving forward oil development efforts in Alaska, most notably in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Melody Schreiber)

On Tuesday, Joe Balash, assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, resigned from his position effective August 30. David Bernhardt, head of the agency, announced the resignation on Twitter that afternoon.

Balash, one of the top Alaskans in the Trump administration, oversaw several development projects throughout the state, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge environmental impact statement and lease sale.

Some observers and officials in Washington are now wondering whether, in Balash’s absence, the EIS and lease sale will continue on schedule.

Balash was confirmed in 2017 as assistant secretary for land and minerals management in the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Land Management. In his resignation letter, Balash gave no reason for his departure, but he highlighted his work around natural resource development.

According to a Politico investigation published in July, Balash was tasked, on his second day, with “having a successful lease sale” in ANWR — one of President Trump’s most hoped-for accomplishments. Politico suggested that Balash and Bernhardt were attempting to hold the lease sale in two years, rather than four, for political reasons in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Back in February, in a meeting with journalists during a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on the draft EIS, Balash said, “Right now, we’re following the law, as Congress has made it.”

However, while the 2017 tax bill that opened ANWR to drilling gave the Interior four years to conduct a lease sale, Balash and Bernhardt accelerated the process, aiming to hold the first lease sale in just two years — by the end of 2019.

Several scientists, including those at a different branch of the Interior Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have raised objections that the rushed process has overlooked their findings and, at times, even reversed their recommendations related to the 1002 area, a key part of the refuge’s coastal plain for oil and gas exploration.

At the D.C. hearing in February, Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, protested the rushed timeline. Kolton said that there were “certain promises” made during the tax bill debate and in the legislation itself that “had to be taken seriously,” including the four-year lease process.

“You want to get a lease sale out there to make it harder to challenge,” he said. “That’s not a responsible process by any definition.”

Balash was also overseeing, on behalf of the BLM, the application from SAExploration to conduct 3-D seismic surveys in the ANWR coastal plain. However, SAExploration has not received the Fish and Wildlife Service permit that would allow it to disturb polar bears, and the seismic plan is on hold. In February, Balash said it would be nice to have a seismic survey done prior to a lease sale, but it is not a prerequisite.

Three days after the Politico article in July, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee launched an investigation, with a particular focus on any documents and communications from Balash regarding the development and editing of the draft EIS. He resigned three weeks later.

Environmental advocacy groups see Balash’s resignation as a chance to restart the EIS process, with the Sierra Club calling the process under Balash a “sham.”

But an Interior Department spokesman told ArcticToday that the effort to conduct the lease sale was not Balash’s alone; it included dozens of staff members across multiple federal agencies, local and tribal governments, and contractors.

“The goal is still to hold the lease sale by the end of the year,” he said.

In order to meet that deadline, the Interior Department will need to release the EIS within the next few months, since it must be open to public comment for 30 days prior to a lease sale.

In addition to his work on ANWR, Balash had been shepherding other pro-development projects in Alaska, including a rewrite of the Integrated Activity Plan for the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska that would replace the Obama-era plan that was issued in 2013. He has said at public events in Alaska that the goal of the rewrite is to open more parts of the reserve to oil development.

Balash has also overseen the Ambler Road Project, the 211-mile road that would give access to the Ambler copper-mining district in northwestern Alaska, as well as the update of the Bering Sea/Western Interior management plan.

The draft EIS on Ambler is expected out within weeks, and a rewritten draft EIS on NPR-A is also expected very soon. It’s unclear if Balash’s resignation will affect this work.

In a post on Facebook, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who drafted the 2017 tax bill provision for ANWR drilling, applauded Balash’s legacy.

“Alaska is in better place because of his leadership and we thank him for his many years of public service,” she wrote, adding that despite his resignation, she was confident that “the strong partnership we have formed with the Department in this administration will continue.”

In the meantime, Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill to the U.S. House of Representative that would repeal the lease program entirely. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, plans to bring the bill to the floor for a vote during the week of September 9.

And in June, the House voted to block leasing if the bids don’t deliver the amount promised in the tax bill.

But Tonya Parish, deputy press secretary of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, told ArcticToday that such a bill would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“We oppose these provisions and expect them to be complete non-starters in the Senate — as standalone bills, appropriations riders, or otherwise,” she said.

Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen.