It’s 3,200 miles from Joe Balash’s office in Washington, D.C., to the Neets’aii Gwich’in community of Arctic Village, at the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But Arctic Village is barely 200 miles from North Pole, the Alaska town where Balash grew up.
Balash is a top Trump administration official, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the U.S. Interior Department. He was confirmed in December 2017 – the same month Congress voted to open a portion of the refuge to oil development.
On his second day on the job, he said, he was personally tasked by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt – then the deputy secretary – with ensuring the refuge oil lease sale moves ahead. It’s likely that when the federal government formally signs off on the required environmental review later this year, Balash will be the one holding the pen.
That step will fulfill a longstanding dream of pro-development Alaskans like Balash, who have long lobbied Congress and presidential administrations to open the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. Environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and the Gwich’in people successfully blocked those efforts for decades, until Donald Trump signed the GOP tax reform bill, which also allowed development in the refuge’s coastal plain. That area is 1.6 million acres, or slightly larger than the state of Delaware – though still less than 10 percent of the refuge’s overall area.
The Gwich’in people’s subsistence lifestyle depends on the Porcupine caribou herd that commonly gives birth in the coastal plain; they see those drilling plans as a desecration. But Balash is 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 said in an interview. “And if I weren’t, I would have very different feelings about this.”
When Balash’s charter plane, filled with an all-white delegation of federal officials, landed on Arctic Village’s gravel runway in June, there was no one to meet them at the airport — instead, they walked the half-mile in the spring sunshine to the village’s community hall, where they were scheduled to meet with the local tribal government.
But when Balash’s group walked in the door, they got a welcome that, if not warm, was far from chilly. There were handshakes and hugs, and as the meeting began, council members pointed out their houses, “in case you guys need anything, even after the meeting,” said Galen Gilbert, Arctic Village’s chief. One of Balash’s colleagues handed out sticks of homemade moose pepperoni brought from Anchorage. For lunch, the council prepared a buffet lunch of moose, caribou and pie — eaten as they implored Balash to protect the refuge’s integrity.
Such is the paradox of the Arctic Refuge debate on the ground, and of the task for Balash, who went to high school near Fairbanks and spent half a career working in Alaska state government — and occasionally advocating for drilling in the refuge — before moving to Washington.
The Gwich’in are respectful, welcoming hosts, even as they see Balash as the arm of a government that, by opening the refuge to drilling, is pushing them aside and threatening their way of life. Balash, meanwhile, came to listen to the Gwich’in people’s fears and opinions directly, in hopes of accounting for them in the department’s plans for how and where development will be allowed in the refuge.
What Balash is not considering, though: The Gwich’in people’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 said in the interview, just before his charter 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 Force family and moved to Alaska just before starting sixth grade. At high school on Eielson Air Force Base, outside Fairbanks, he was a three-time state wrestling champion known for his “grim countenance” before meets, according to a 1993 Anchorage Daily News story.
After moving to Alaska, Balash spent time with his father, “chasing salmon wherever his Subaru could take us,” he said during his confirmation hearing. He also started learning about the state’s Permanent Fund dividend program, which pays Alaska residents cash earned by an investment fund seeded with oil revenue. Those experiences, he said, helped form his view that “with the right approach, you can have responsible development without sacrificing clean air and water.”
Balash’s initial experience with the politics of the Arctic Refuge came around that time, in a high school government class. He chose the development debate as the subject for a current events paper, and his conclusion, he said, was that “we Alaskans could get it right.”
Balash’s first job in politics came through a church friend of his father’s: former Republican state legislator Gene Therriault. After eight years as a legislative aide, he was hired as a special assistant to Sarah Palin after she was elected governor, then worked as deputy commissioner and commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources under Palin’s successor, Sean Parnell.
At the natural resources 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, occasionally penning opinion pieces to fend off the administration’s critics.
He also helped pass the controversial 2013 reduction in state oil taxes, Senate Bill 21, and he pushed legislation to ease permitting requirements for development projects, House Bill 77, that the Republican-led Senate ultimately rejected as too divisive.
In those jobs, Balash said in the interview, one of the things he learned 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 said.
When Parnell lost his re-election in 2014 to independent Bill Walker, Balash took a job as chief of staff to newly-elected GOP U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who was Parnell’s natural resources commissioner while Balash was the deputy commissioner.
Trump then appointed Balash to his Interior Department job in mid-2017. As assistant secretary for land and minerals management, he oversees agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (which oversees offshore oil drilling), with more than 10,000 employees 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 said he believes that “climate change is not a hoax, and that man has an influence.”
Nonetheless, Balash is a believer in oil development — in the way it can bring, and has already brought, critical infrastructure and cash into the isolated Alaska Native Inupiat villages on the North Slope.
The North Slope Borough has a $400 million budget, paid for almost entirely with property taxes on oil and gas infrastructure; it provides education, firefighters, police officers and other services to the region’s villages. Balash points to academic research that found dramatic increases in life expectancy in the area since production began at the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oil-fields.
“The benefits that they’ve achieved for their people are indisputable,” Balash said. “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 benefits also extend to the state as a whole, since Alaska has collected and spent billions of dollars in oil revenue on its own government services. But coastal Alaska communities both on the North Slope and elsewhere in the state are also now facing expensive problems created by global warming, which scientists agree is driven by oil consumption.
Balash said the scale of oil production from the Arctic Refuge won’t be enough to make a difference on a global scale. And, he said, he assumes that an “enormous amount” of new oil and gas development will still be produced before the world stops depending on fossil fuels.
“That will happen, and it will happen somewhere on this planet,” Balash said. 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 government’s ability to protect the refuge’s wildlife, while allowing drilling, stems from what he’s seen elsewhere on the North Slope, he said: Caribou populations don’t appear to have been dramatically reduced by development at existing fields in Prudhoe Bay.
But Balash also acknowledges that the refuge and the Porcupine herd have different characteristics from the environment and caribou on the rest of the North Slope. Farther to the west, where oil infrastructure already exists, there’s more room for caribou to roam between the mountains and the ocean. In the refuge, that space is narrower.
To account for that, Balash said, the Trump administration is considering three different plans for development, all with at least some level of restrictions on drilling in the Porcupine herd’s core calving grounds. One option bans oil leasing in more than one-fourth of the total area that Congress opened to drilling; a second allows horizontal drilling but no surface disturbance in critical caribou habitat; and a third allows surface disturbance but restricts construction during calving season.
But, citing uncertainty about the refuge’s environment and ecology, he wouldn’t say development would stop if there was evidence that it was harming the population.
“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 said. “There would be a number of things that you’d have to look at.”
The “fear” Balash referenced earlier pops up at Arctic Village meeting, where he sat, dressed in a red zip-up sweater and khakis, on a bench with his colleagues.
“We’re not just fighting for caribou. We’re fighting for polar bears and all (the) species of birds,” Jerald John, one of the council members, told Balash’s group. “Where are these birds going to go once you disturb their natural habitat?”
For this government-to-government consultation, Balash is on Gwich’in turf — the community hall is hung with heart-shaped signs celebrating caribou. His Interior Department colleagues noted it’s rare for such a high-ranking official to make multiple in-person trips to tribal meetings in rural Alaska, as Balash has done as part of the planning process for development in the refuge.
Balash’s on-the-ground presence and familiarity with Alaska does make a difference, said Matt Newman, an Anchorage-based attorney 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 of Newman’s high school teachers.
“Not to be too crude about it, but he goes into a village and realizes what that little outhouse out back is for,” Newman said in an interview.
Newman, in an interview, said he believes Balash and his colleagues are sincere in their effort to accommodate the Gwich’in people’s concerns.
“There’s no mustache-twirling villains here. There’s no antagonists in the traditional storytelling sense,” Newman said. Balash, he added, is not 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 said.
But, Newman added, the Gwich’in people’s message only goes so far with Balash. In spite of that message, Balash’s “core belief” that oil development and caribou can co-exist remains unshaken, Newman said.
“I don’t think it has swayed him, or changed his mind,” he said.
In the same way, 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 meeting, is less convinced of Balash’s sincerity. In an interview afterward, she said she feels drilling proponents are “just trying to check the boxes” during the planning process.
“I just really feel like their minds were already made up before they came into this,” she said.
For the only moment over the course of a long day, Balash seemed irritated when asked about that comment, as he stepped off his federal charter plane back 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 said. “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 bird species by John, the tribal council member, made an impression on Balash; he said he’d be taking a “harder look” at some of the proposed drilling restrictions intended to protect birds.
The big takeaway from his meeting, Balash said, is that the Gwich’in want to stay engaged in the planning process.
And when it’s over? “They’re still going to sue us,” he said.
Read and listen to more stories from our series The Future of the Arctic Refuge: Riches or Ruin?