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Meet the Trump administration official whose signature could formally open ANWR to drilling

Joe Balash, left, walks toward a federal constitution aircraft in June after a meeting between the Trump administration and tribal officers in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in group in Inside Alaska. At right is Chad Padgett, the prime Bureau of Land Administration official in Alaska. Balash is the Inside Department official main the federal authorities’s planning course of prematurely of opening the Arctic Nationwide Wildlife Refuge to oil improvement. (Photograph by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Power Desk)

It’s 3,200 miles from Joe Balash’s office in Washington, D.C., to the Neets’aii Gwich’in group of Arctic Village, at the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However Arctic Village is barely 200 miles from North Pole, the Alaska town the place Balash grew up.

Balash is a prime Trump administration official, the assistant secretary for land and minerals administration at the U.S. Interior Division. He was confirmed in December 2017 – the similar month Congress voted to open a portion of the refuge to oil improvement.

On his second day on the job, he stated, he was personally tasked by Inside Secretary David Bernhardt – then the deputy secretary – with making certain the refuge oil lease sale strikes ahead. It’s possible that when the federal authorities formally signs off on the required environmental evaluation later this yr, Balash can be the one holding the pen.

That step will fulfill a longstanding dream of pro-development Alaskans like Balash, who’ve lengthy lobbied Congress and presidential administrations to open the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. Environmental teams, Democratic lawmakers and the Gwich’in individuals successfully blocked these efforts for many years, till Donald Trump signed the GOP tax reform invoice, which also allowed improvement in the refuge’s coastal plain. The world is 1.6 million acres, or slightly larger than the state of Delaware – although nonetheless less than 10 % of the refuge’s general area.

The Gwich’in individuals’s subsistence way of life will depend on the Porcupine caribou herd that generally provides delivery in the coastal plain; they see these drilling plans as a desecration. However Balash is for certain that caribou and oil infrastructure can coexist.

“The one thing that I wish more than anything is that the fear that people have about the consequences of this – I am confident that we are able to move forward here and not devastate the Porcupine caribou herd. I am absolutely convinced of that,” Balash stated in an interview. “And if I weren’t, I would have very different feelings about this.”

When Balash’s charter aircraft, full of an all-white delegation of federal officials, landed on Arctic Village’s gravel runway in June, there was nobody to meet them at the airport — as an alternative, they walked the half-mile in the spring sunshine to the village’s group hall, the place they have been scheduled to meet with the native tribal government.

But when Balash’s group walked in the door, they obtained a welcome that, if not heat, was far from chilly. There have been handshakes and hugs, and as the meeting started, council members identified their homes, “in case you guys need anything, even after the meeting,” stated Galen Gilbert, Arctic Village’s chief. Certainly one of Balash’s colleagues handed out sticks of do-it-yourself moose pepperoni brought from Anchorage. For lunch, the council ready a buffet lunch of moose, caribou and pie — eaten as they implored Balash to shield the refuge’s integrity.

Such is the paradox of the Arctic Refuge debate on the ground, and of the process for Balash, who went to highschool close to Fairbanks and spent half a profession working in Alaska state government — and infrequently advocating for drilling in the refuge — earlier than shifting to Washington.

The Gwich’in are respectful, welcoming hosts, whilst they see Balash as the arm of a government that, by opening the refuge to drilling, is pushing them aside and threatening their lifestyle. Balash, meanwhile, got here to pay attention to the Gwich’in individuals’s fears and opinions immediately, in hopes of accounting for them in the department’s plans for a way and where improvement might be allowed in the refuge.

Arctic Village, a Gwich’in village of about 150 individuals, sits at the southern boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photograph by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Power Desk)

What Balash is just not contemplating, although: The Gwich’in individuals’s demand that drilling not take place at all.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations with individuals about that, where they’ve said, ‘Come on, Joe, it’s your signature. You can make this okay, you can stop this from happening,’” Balash stated in the interview, simply earlier than his constitution flight took off from Fairbanks. “The reality is, Congress has passed a law. The president is fully behind that law and implementing it faithfully. And if I were to, for some reason, balk at that, I’d be replaced.”

He added: “After digging into the details, and with the benefit of sitting down for literally hours and days with our biologists and other experts, I’m convinced that we can fashion a program here that is going to allow the Porcupine caribou herd to continue to migrate, to continue to procreate and continue to sustain the Gwich’in people.”

Balash, 44, grew up in an Air Pressure family and moved to Alaska just before starting sixth grade. At high school on Eielson Air Drive Base, outdoors Fairbanks, he was a three-time state wrestling champion recognized for his “grim countenance” earlier than meets, in accordance to a 1993 Anchorage Day by day News story.

After shifting to Alaska, Balash hung out together with his father, “chasing salmon wherever his Subaru could take us,” he stated throughout his confirmation hearing. He also started learning about the state’s Everlasting Fund dividend program, which pays Alaska residents money earned by an investment fund seeded with oil revenue. These experiences, he stated, helped type his view that “with the right approach, you can have responsible development without sacrificing clean air and water.”

Balash’s preliminary experience with the politics of the Arctic Refuge came round that point, in a highschool government class. He selected the improvement debate as the subject for a current events paper, and his conclusion, he stated, was that “we Alaskans could get it right.”

Balash’s first job in politics came by means of a church good friend of his father’s: former Republican state legislator Gene Therriault. After eight years as a legislative aide, he was employed as a special assistant to Sarah Palin after she was elected governor, then worked as deputy commissioner and commissioner of the Division of Natural Assets beneath Palin’s successor, Sean Parnell.

At the pure assets department — Balash’s highest-profile job before being appointed by Trump — he advanced and defended Parnell’s pro-development policies and was a fierce political advocate for his Republican boss, sometimes penning opinion items to fend off the administration’s critics.

He also helped cross the controversial 2013 discount in state oil taxes, Senate Invoice 21, and he pushed legislation to ease permitting necessities for improvement tasks, Home Invoice 77, that the Republican-led Senate finally rejected as too divisive.

In those jobs, Balash stated in the interview, considered one of the issues he discovered was, “sometimes you shouldn’t do something just because you can.”

“If you don’t bring certain key players, institutions, communities along, just because you have the power for the moment doesn’t mean that that decision or that policy is going to stand the test of time,” he stated.

When Parnell lost his re-election in 2014 to unbiased Bill Walker, Balash took a job as chief of employees to newly-elected GOP U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who was Parnell’s natural assets commissioner while Balash was the deputy commissioner.

Balash and Padgett stroll along the street between Arctic Village’s group corridor and its gravel airstrip. (Photograph by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Power Desk)

Trump then appointed Balash to his Interior Division job in mid-2017. As assistant secretary for land and minerals management, he oversees businesses together with the Bureau of Land Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Power Administration (which oversees offshore oil drilling), with more than 10,000 staff and $1 billion in federal spending.

He eschews the bombast of some other Trump administration political officials. And during the confirmation process, in response to written questions from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, Balash stated he believes that “climate change is not a hoax, and that man has an influence.”

Nonetheless, Balash is a believer in oil improvement — in the means it could possibly convey, and has already introduced, essential infrastructure and money into the isolated Alaska Native Inupiat villages on the North Slope.

The North Slope Borough has a $400 million price range, paid for almost solely with property taxes on oil and fuel infrastructure; it offers schooling, firefighters, cops and other providers to the area’s villages. Balash points to educational research that discovered dramatic will increase in life expectancy in the area since production started at the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oil-fields.

“The benefits that they’ve achieved for their people are indisputable,” Balash stated. “Whatever other issues one has about the environment, the climate, the behavior of oil companies — for the Inupiat people on the North Slope, it’s not all positive, there’s downsides. But on net: big, big benefits.”

Those advantages additionally prolong to the state as an entire, since Alaska has collected and spent billions of dollars in oil income by itself government providers. But coastal Alaska communities both on the North Slope and elsewhere in the state are also now dealing with costly issues created by international warming, which scientists agree is driven by oil consumption.

Balash stated the scale of oil production from the Arctic Refuge gained’t be sufficient to make a difference on a worldwide scale. And, he stated, he assumes that an “enormous amount” of latest oil and fuel improvement will still be produced before the world stops relying on fossil fuels.

“That will happen, and it will happen somewhere on this planet,” Balash stated. He added, referring to the refuge: “It just so happens that in this particular place, we have very good reason to believe that there’s an enormous resource there and that we can develop it in a safe and responsible manner.”

Balash’s confidence in the authorities’s potential to shield the refuge’s wildlife, whereas permitting drilling, stems from what he’s seen elsewhere on the North Slope, he stated: Caribou populations don’t seem to have been dramatically decreased by improvement at present fields in Prudhoe Bay.

Arctic Village residents take part in a caribou leg-skinning contest earlier this yr. (Photograph by Elizabeth Harball / Alaska’s Power Desk)

But Balash also acknowledges that the refuge and the Porcupine herd have totally different characteristics from the setting and caribou on the rest of the North Slope. Farther to the west, where oil infrastructure already exists, there’s extra room for caribou to roam between the mountains and the ocean. In the refuge, that area is narrower.

To account for that, Balash stated, the Trump administration is considering three totally different plans for improvement, all with at the very least some degree of restrictions on drilling in the Porcupine herd’s core calving grounds. One choice bans oil leasing in additional than one-fourth of the complete area that Congress opened to drilling; a second permits horizontal drilling but no floor disturbance in important caribou habitat; and a third allows surface disturbance but restricts development during calving season.

However, citing uncertainty about the refuge’s setting and ecology, he wouldn’t say improvement would cease if there was proof that it was harming the inhabitants.

“I think the question in that scenario would be: What’s going on with the herd? And what changed? Is it that the herd is just migrating somewhere else? Or is the herd getting smaller?” Balash stated. “There would be a number of things that you’d have to look at.”

The “fear” Balash referenced earlier pops up at Arctic Village assembly, where he sat, dressed in a pink zip-up sweater and khakis, on a bench together with his colleagues.

“We’re not just fighting for caribou. We’re fighting for polar bears and all (the) species of birds,” Jerald John, certainly one of the council members, advised Balash’s group. “Where are these birds going to go once you disturb their natural habitat?”

For this government-to-government session, Balash is on Gwich’in turf — the group corridor is hung with heart-shaped indicators celebrating caribou. His Interior Department colleagues noted it’s rare for such a high-ranking official to make a number of in-person journeys to tribal conferences in rural Alaska, as Balash has achieved as part of the planning course of for improvement in the refuge.

Balash sits with Padgett, left, and Steve Berendzen, the Arctic Refuge supervisor, throughout the meeting in Arctic Village. (Photograph by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Power Desk)

Balash’s on-the-ground presence and familiarity with Alaska does make a difference, stated Matt Newman, an Anchorage-based lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund who’s working with the Gwich’in tribal governments. Like Balash, Newman grew up in North Pole, and Balash’s brother Luke was one in every of Newman’s highschool academics.

“Not to be too crude about it, but he goes into a village and realizes what that little outhouse out back is for,” Newman stated in an interview.

Newman, in an interview, stated he believes Balash and his colleagues are honest in their effort to accommodate the Gwich’in individuals’s considerations.

“There’s no mustache-twirling villains here. There’s no antagonists in the traditional storytelling sense,” Newman stated. Balash, he added, isn’t in Arctic Village “just to say: ‘To hell with you people, we’re drilling.’”

“He actually is making, in my mind, a good-faith effort to meet people, to talk with them, and at least attempt to try to find ways to address their concerns,” Newman stated.

But, Newman added, the Gwich’in individuals’s message solely goes thus far with Balash. Regardless of that message, Balash’s “core belief” that oil improvement and caribou can co-exist remains unshaken, Newman stated.

“I don’t think it has swayed him, or changed his mind,” he stated.

In the similar means, Newman added, “the Gwich’in folks are not rolling over. They’re not conceding defeat. And they’re not just going to sit down and cut a deal and say, ‘All right, this has happened. How can we benefit from it?’”

Tonya Garnett, a Gwich’in leader at the Arctic Village assembly, is less convinced of Balash’s sincerity. In an interview afterward, she stated she feels drilling proponents are “just trying to check the boxes” throughout the planning process.

“I just really feel like their minds were already made up before they came into this,” she stated.

For the solely second over the course of an extended day, Balash appeared irritated when asked about that remark, as he stepped off his federal constitution aircraft again in Fairbanks.

“I sure feel like I’m doing more than checking the box here. I don’t know how to convince them of that,” he stated. “At the end of the day I’m not sure I can. But I have to live with myself.”

The comments about the refuge’s hen species by John, the tribal council member, made an impression on Balash; he stated he’d be taking a “harder look” at some of the proposed drilling restrictions meant to shield birds.

The large takeaway from his meeting, Balash stated, is that the Gwich’in need to stay engaged in the planning course of.

And when it’s over? “They’re still going to sue us,” he stated.