High-level departure exacerbates growing vacancy problem

By Michael Doyle | 08/22/2019 01:09 PM EDT

Joe Balash resigned from his position as the Interior Department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

Joe Balash resigned from his position as the Interior Department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management. Margaret Kriz Hobson/E&E News

Joe Balash’s resignation from the Interior Department aggravates a broader problem with leadership vacancies and could complicate some specific Trump administration priorities on which the Alaska native had taken the lead.

The department of some 70,000 employees has already been without a deputy secretary since late April, when David Bernhardt was elevated to Interior secretary. No nominee has yet been named.

The Senate-confirmed directorships of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service also remain vacant. Currently, only FWS has a nominee, Aurelia Skipwith. Another key position that has been empty during the past 31 months of the Trump administration, Interior solicitor, has a controversial nominee in Daniel Jorjani, whose nomination is being blocked by a Senate Democrat’s hold.

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As assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, Balash had a lead role in the administration’s plan to move BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo. He, rather than Bernhardt, signed Interior’s recent response to lawmakers’ initial questions (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

The move is now entering a crucial phase. Yesterday, General Services Administration regional spokesman Richard Stebbins said "several" responses had been received following a call for Grand Junction office space.

GSA’s solicitation identifies a need for 30 parking spaces and between 4,500 and 5,000 square feet that "can be ready for occupancy by 9/16/2019."

"Expressions of interest" were due Aug. 6, while the formal proposals are now due Aug. 26.

Sharp questions will also face whoever fills in for Balash at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Sept. 10 on the BLM move.

Panel Democrats appear loaded for bear.

"The hearing will address the Trump administration’s failure to offer any meaningful justification for the move, the lack of consultation with stakeholders, and the impacts on public employees of such a hasty, poorly planned transition," the committee stated.

A big energy portfolio

In addition to BLM, Balash’s position oversees the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

The post made him a key player in the administration’s plans to auction a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain for oil development, a leadership role for which his background that included past service as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources may be hard to match.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said of her fellow Alaskan that "he has led the way on a number of issues that are critical to our state and nation."

"From standing up the leasing program for the 1002 Area to the lifting of decades-old Public Lands Orders, Joe has worked tirelessly to advance responsible resource development and improve land management," Murkowski said in a statement.

Balash’s former Capitol Hill boss, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), added that Balash’s work on the administration’s policy of "energy dominance" had "helped set Alaska up for success for years to come" (Energywire, Aug. 13, 2018).

Energy industry officials and advocates have likewise praised Balash’s work and sought his time, underscoring the clout inherent in the position he’s vacating.

In January 2018, for instance, calendar records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that backers of the Castle Mountain gold mine in California secured an hourlong meeting with Balash to discuss their efforts to restart and expand the mining operation.

"Our cooperative efforts with the Department of the Interior are an essential aspect of achieving these goals," the gold mine representatives wrote.

In a similar vein, the American Petroleum Institute secured a 45-minute meeting with Balash in February 2018, advising the then-new Interior official that the organization "looks forward to working with you and the department."

Once Balash departs, and until his replacement is named and confirmed, the assistant secretary’s responsibilities will be temporarily delegated to someone else. Andrea Travnicek is now the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals management.

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