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Senators vote to confirm pro-drilling Alaskan to Interior Department

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The Trump administration continues to push forward with plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gave those plans a boost Tuesday, voting to confirm a drilling advocate as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management.

Over the course of his career, former Alaska official Joe Balash has been strongly in favor of developing Alaska’s natural gas and oil resources and in favor of transferring public lands to Alaska control so the state could offer oil and gas leases. He has testified to Congress that the Arctic Refuge should be open to oil drilling, and in 2014 he wrote to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to say that 20,000 acres of the refuge should rightfully be under Alaskan control.

At the time, the Obama administration rejected those claims, but if confirmed by the full Senate, Balash himself would be oversee BLM and “management of all federal lands and waters, and their associated mineral and non-mineral resources,” according to the Interior Department.

“There’s no doubt that, if confirmed, he will be advocating alongside a growing list of this administration’s political appointees who seem dead set on drilling in the Arctic Refuge — despite the law and the will of the American people,” Kristin Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.

And, in fact, when the Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Balash’s nomination, the oil and gas industry — in an Interior Department press release — applauded the move.

“We welcome the pick of Mr. Balash as the assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management,” said Erik Milito, group director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute. “He should be a tremendous asset in helping to prioritize energy development and further strengthen U.S. energy and national security.”

Environmental groups say Balash’s nomination is part of a cohesive strategy by the Trump administration to allow oil and gas companies access to the Arctic Refuge.

In addition to Balash’s nomination, the administration appears to have included revenue from drilling in the refuge in its long-term financial forecasts. The Alaska Wilderness League says to make the budget work, Congress will likely have to open up what’s known as Area 1002, a 1.5-million acre section of the refuge that is not restricted from development in perpetuity, unlike the rest of the refuge.

Other pro-drilling nominees have taken positions at the Interior Department, as well. During his time as an aide at the agency during the George W. Bush administration, current Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt “substantially rewrote official biological assessments to falsely downplay impacts of drilling” in the refuge, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on documents showing that the Trump administration is in the process of modifying 1980s regulations that prohibit seismic testing in the region. Seismic testing is a method for determining whether and how much oil and gas might be found underground, but it is disruptive to wildlife, scientists have found.

In fact, other reports have shown that effects could be significant, because the 1002 Area is a unique and pristine environment. According to a study in Oil and Gas Journal in 2003, “biological diversity in the 1002 Area and adjacent waters is considered very high, ecologically intact to a large degree, and valuable as a scientific resource. Much opportunity remains to advance understanding of caribou, polar bear, and muskoxen, for example.”

In addition, the site is a caribou calving area that provides “a crucial source of nutrition and culture for the Gwitch’in native peoples, who inhabit villages along the southern part of ANWR and in adjacent Canadian territory,” the study says.

Opening up the refuge would put the Gwitch’in people’s way of life at risk.

“For us, protecting this place is a matter of physical, spiritual and cultural survival,” said Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “It is our basic human right to continue to feed our families and practice our traditional way of life. Oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain would be a human rights violation. Our identity is not negotiable.”

The Senate Energy Committee is headed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican. Balash’s nomination passed the committee Tuesday by voice vote. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked the record to show that he voted against the nomination.

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