The Trump administration has been floating the idea of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) ever since they arrived at the White House. Now, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has confirmed a nomination that could set these plans in action.
Every Senator on the committee, except for Al Franken, were unanimous in their confirmation of the former Alaskan official Joe Balash, who has been a vocal proponent of arctic drilling.
If his nomination is supported by the full Senate, he will become the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management. In this role, Balash would be in charge of the "Interior's management of all federal lands and waters, and their associated mineral and non-mineral resources, as well as the appropriate regulation of surface coal mining."
Many are worried, however, that if the full Senate confirms Balash, he will preference the progress of the oil industry over the protection of Alaskan wildlife and the sacred land of the Gwich'in people.
"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," said Kristin Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
These fears are not unwarranted. Throughout his 19 years of experience in land and natural resource management, Balash has advocated for transferring public lands to the state of Alaska in order to further develop the region's natural gas and oil resources.
Over the years, Balash has consistently advocated for further drilling in Alaska, despite the wildlife that it would necessarily endanger. Balash has even testified in front of Congress, supporting legislation that would "expedite oil and gas leasing and energy infrastructure permitting" in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. But critics of the bill said it "fail[ed] to acknowledge the poor prospects for oil development…and could imperil sensitive habitats for birds and caribou."
In fact, in 2014, Balash wrote to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), arguing that 20,000 acres of the wildlife refuge should be given to the state. As Assistant Secretary, Balash would be in charge of BLM and would have the power to carry out this transaction.
Secretary Ryan Zinke nominated Balash for the committee in July of this year, and the decision was applauded by many in the oil and gas industry.
"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."
But for obvious reasons, environmental organizations are far more skeptical. That's because the ANWR is home to a diverse spread of wildlife, with several notable species including polar bears, musk oxen, and caribou.
Not only are these lands a safe haven for wildlife, the ANWR is deemed "the sacred place where life begins" by Alaska's native Gwich'in people. According to wildlife biologist, Ken Whitten, who has spent 25 years studying caribou behavior, if drilling proceeds, the caribou that have sustained the Gwich'in people for centuries will be destroyed forever.
"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."
But these arguments hold no sway for politicians and businessmen who can think of nothing but profit.
"Let me be brutal about it," said Roger Herrera of British Petroleum. "Caribou are more plentiful than people in Alaska, so what's the big deal?"
The big deal is that recovering oil from this region would inevitably result in irreversible, ecological damage to these precious ecosystems, and would drastically change the Gwich'in way of life.
If the full Senate confirms Balash's nomination and drilling begins on these public lands, it is unlikely we will be able to preserve them for the future.