Top Interior Department official Joe Balash is leaving his post with the Trump administration to begin work at a foreign oil company that is drilling on Alaska state lands. Balash worked on holding lease sales to expand fossil fuel production in Alaska before the recent move to join the New Guinea-based Oil Search, leading to concerns of corruption.
Balash will work as the company’s senior vice president for external affairs for Alaska operations, according to the Washington Post. He claims he has abided by all relevant ethics rules in making the transition.
Sen. Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, sent a letter to Interior’s designated ethics official Wednesday asking that the department provide records of all ethics filings made by Balash:
“I believe the public has a compelling interest in knowing whether the necessary steps were taken to address this potential conflict of interest,” wrote Udall in the letter.
Balash served as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management before joining Oil Search. He was a fierce advocate of the Trump administration’s drive for “energy dominance,” which has included moves to drill in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge and National Petroleum Reserve.
According to a recent report from Global Witness, the U.S. is on track to create nearly two-thirds of the world’s new fossil fuel production over the next ten years, in defiance of countless warnings from scientists urging the transition to clean energy to avert catastrophic climate change.
If Balash’s change to Oil Search “ends up being legal, it’s further confirmation to me that our laws are simply inadequate,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, told the Washington Post. Brian noted that Balash had been using his position to open land near Oil Search’s development, raising questions of impropriety:
“It is hard to have confidence that decisions he was making while he was working for the taxpayers were not impacted by his aspirations or hopes to go work for a company that was materially affected by his work.”
The Post notes wildlife would be affected by the decision, as the sites “are home to large numbers of migratory birds as well as caribou, polar bears and other wildlife.” The Trump administration has rolled back protections on endangered species and recently moved to open development in Alaska’s Tongass rainforest, the largest national rainforest in the United States.
Other Environmental organizations were more blunt with their criticisms of Balash’s passage through the revolving door.
“Potential conflicts of interest, utilizing the D.C. revolving door, and looking to drill on federal public lands?” tweeted public land conservation group the Western Values Project. “Balash is just another example of the mess and mismanagement within Secretary David Bernhardt’s Interior.”
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is regarded as the single most conflicted member of the entire Trump administration. The former oil industry lobbyist has come under scrutiny for his non-transparent meetings with fossil fuel executives and lobbyists. His predecessor, Ryan Zinke, was forced to step down amid numerous ethics scandals.
Similarly, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, whose predecessor Scott Pruitt also worked with fossil fuel interests before being pressured to resign amid multiple scandals. Pruitt is now consulting for coal magnate Joseph W. Craft III.
Former Interior Department energy counselor Vincent DeVito is another example of the Trump administration’s revolving door with fossil fuel companies, having joined Cox Oil Offshore as its executive Vice President only three weeks after departing the Interior.
“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.”
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