Joe Balash, the high-level Alaskan appointee at the U.S. Department of the Interior 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.
Balash, an assistant secretary at the department who oversaw the Bureau of Land Management, left his job last week, without saying if he’d taken a new job elsewhere. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Balash has accepted a position with Oil Search, a Papua New Guinea-based company that first expanded into Alaska in 2017.
The company confirmed Balash’s hiring later in the day, saying he would become Oil Search’s senior vice president for external affairs.
Balash, who’s worked for more than two decades in state and federal government, said in a written statement that he didn’t relish leaving his job.
“But with my oldest child graduating high school and the financial pressures of living in one of the more expensive regions of the U.S., it became clear I would need to make a change in 2020 regardless of the outcome of the elections,” he said. “This was not an easy decision, but I am excited to be coming home with a company that is doing great things.”
Oil Search, in a statement, 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 outside Fairbanks and still has family nearby — 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 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Balash said he started to take calls from search firms in May and was “gobsmacked” when the first one was from an exploration and production company in Alaska.
He said 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 his statement, “it was determined that Oil Search’s participation in future lease sales is speculative.”
Balash provided copies of his ethics recusal to Alaska’s Energy Desk; they show that he began discussions with Oil Search on May 15 and filed the document a day later. Balash also filed a second recusal in June saying he discussed a job with the National Mining Association, an industry trade group.
Similar forms were filed by Obama administration appointees at the end of the Democratic president’s second term.
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. He told the Post that he would, however, be supervising Oil Search employees who would be lobbying.
Environmental organizations quickly questioned Balash’s decision to accept a job in the oil industry, given his past position overseeing development on federal lands.
Lois Epstein, who works with the Wilderness Society in Alaska, said it’s too early to know exactly how Balash’s new job could intersect with the decisions he made at the Interior Department. But broadly speaking, she said, “he has prioritized and accelerated industrialization of the Alaskan Arctic in a big way.”
“We don’t know what Oil Search is going to do, but the potential is there for them to take advantage of the new federal opportunities to develop on public lands,” Epstein added.
Balash is the latest Trump administration official who’s been criticized for taking a job in an 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.