A top U.S. Department of the Interior appointee who pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil leasing is taking a job with an oil company seeking to develop a major project in Alaska.
Joe Balash, an assistant secretary at the department who oversaw the Bureau of Land Management, left his job last week. On Wednesday he announced his new position as senior vice president for external affairs with Oil Search, a Papua New Guinea-based company that first expanded into Alaska in 2017.
"This was not an easy decision, but I am excited to be coming home with a company that is doing great things," he wrote in a Facebook post. Balash said he considers Oil Search's project "a key piece of Alaska's economic and fiscal future."
In a statement, Oil Search said Balash "brings significant regulatory and external affairs experience," noting that it is a relatively new player in the U.S.
Before his federal job, Balash — who went to high school in Alaska and still has family there — worked as a special assistant to Sarah Palin when she was Alaska's governor, then later served as the state's natural resources commissioner.
At the Interior Department, he's been an advocate for the Trump administration's strategy of "energy dominance," pushing to open more federal lands to drilling in the Arctic Refuge and in the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska.
Oil Search is advancing a project called the Pikka development on Alaska's North Slope, which could ultimately produce as many as 120,000 barrels of oil a day, boosting the total amount of oil extracted in the state by about one-fourth. The project is 100 miles west of the Arctic Refuge on state- and privately-owned land, not federal land, though the company had to secure a federal wetlands permit from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Balash said he started to take calls from search firms in May and was "gob smacked" when the first one was from an exploration and production company in Alaska.
He told Alaska's Energy Desk that he immediately filed disclosure forms and sought guidance from ethics attorneys on any Interior Department matters that might affect the company, especially regarding the Trump administration's push to open new areas to drilling in Alaska's Arctic refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve. "In both cases," he said in a statement, "it was determined that Oil Search's participation in future lease sales is speculative."
Balash said he would abide by a Trump administration ethics pledge that, for five years, blocks high-level appointees from lobbying the agency where they worked.
Environmental organizations quickly blasted Balash for accepting a job in the oil industry.
"Throughout his time at Interior, Joe Balash spearheaded efforts to suppress science, ignore indigenous rights and sell off the Arctic Refuge for drilling at all costs," the Sierra Club's Lena Moffitt said in a statement. "Now, he's shamelessly seeking to profit from this destruction while the American people and our public lands pay the price."
Balash is only the latest Trump administration official to raise questions about ties to the industry he was appointed to regulate. Earlier this year, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was hired by an Indiana coal mining company to lobby against plant closures there. His replacement, Andrew Wheeler, spent time lobbying for coal, chemical and uranium companies. And David Bernhardt, the current Interior secretary, is a former oil industry lobbyist.
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