Alaskan says he’ll build consensus in Interior post

Joe Balash is nominated to be an assistant secretary of the Interior Department. (Liz Ruskin)

If confirmed by the Senate, former Alaska Natural Resources commissioner Joe Balash will be assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management. He would oversee a wide swath of Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Balash said his perspective on resource extraction formed early, and was shaped by his love of salmon.

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Balash now works as Sen. Dan Sullivan’s chief of staff in Washington. He grew up in an Air Force family and told senators that, as a child in the 1980s, he saw the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, when he’d go to visit his grandfather.

“At the time, he used to curse the EPA for shutting down the mills that employed him and his Teamster brothers,” Balash said. “At the time, I concluded that the only choice we had was either good jobs or a clean environment.”

Then his dad was transferred to Eielson Air Force Base, and the family moved to North Pole. Balash said he spent his early teens “chasing salmon salmon wherever his Subaru could go.” He said learning about the salmon life cycle gave him a greater appreciation of clean water.

Joe Balash’s wife and daughter came to his confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate. (Liz Ruskin)

“At the same time, I began to learn about the Permanent Fund dividend, and where our state’s wealth came from,” Balash said.

The reality of how Alaska managed to produce so much oil while sustaining health salmon populations caused me to revisit those earlier conclusions.”

The moral of his story? Balash said you can have both, responsible development and also clean air and water.

Balash said he’s a consensus builder, a guy who likes to bring all sides to the table. He said he’s fully committed to listening to people affected by the Department’s decisions and really taking what they say into account.

“I believe that you get much further when people come to an understanding, jointly, collaboratively, by first understanding the problems that each other has and then identify solutions together,” Balash said.

Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, said Balash may have good intentions, but an Aug. 31 order from the Interior secretary could undercut the department’s ability to hear all the facts.

“Mr. Balash may have trouble basically fulfilling some of the ideals that he talked about today,” Epstein said in a phone interview.

The order establishes a 300-page limit for Environmental Impact Statements on complex projects the Interior Department considers. It also says the reports should be completed within a year.

Epstein said that’s likely to mean excluding information.

“Public process is incredibly important and sometimes it take a long time to schedule. There are hunting seasons for subsistence hunters that have to be taken into account,” Epstein said. “As well as the fact that some of the projects in Alaska are just enormous.”

The new limits are not iron-clad. According to the directive, reports can be longer and take more time with the approval of an assistant secretary of the Interior.

Assistant secretary – that’s the job Joe Balash will hold, assuming he’s confirmed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she expects her Energy and Natural Resources Committee will approve Balash soon, sending his nomination to the full Senate.