Environment & Health

The Man Determined to Deliver Trump’s Alaskan Oil Promise

A political appointee at the Department of Interior has played a key, and sometimes controversial, role in opening a pristine wildlife refuge to drilling.
Bill Roth/ADN
From left, Greg Siekaniec, Alaska Regional Director U.S. Fish and Wildlife; Steve Wackowski, Dept. of the Interior senior advisor; Joe Balash, Dept. of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management; and Ted Murphy, State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, listen to public testimony on allowing oil leasing in ANWR.

Later this year, the Trump administration is expected to fulfill a decadeslong Republican dream. The Department of the Interior will likely sell the first leases for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, opening up to development the last remaining stretch of protected land along the North Slope.

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For the oil and gas industry in Alaska, which has been especially hard hit by the global pandemic and economic downturn, it will be a bit of welcome good news. For Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose father spent much of his Senate career fighting to open the refuge, it will be a legacy-defining moment. And for Donald Trump, who campaigned on expanding domestic energy production, it will be a chance to claim a “promise kept” as voters head to the polls. Democrats continue to oppose development in the refuge. A recent amendment to an appropriations spending bill from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) would bar any lease sale from happening, and, if elected, Joe Biden has promised to permanently protect the refuge.

The Interior Department has pushed aggressively to hold a lease sale before the end of Trump’s first term and has expedited the environmental review process in order to accomplish that goal. But the rushed review process—attempting to do in two years what typically takes twice as long—has led to allegations that the administration has interfered with the work of career scientists, sidelined Fish and Wildlife Service employees who oversee the refuge and failed to conduct needed research before holding a lease sale.

Steve Wackowski, the department’s senior adviser for Alaska Affairs and a former campaign manager for Murkowski, has been central to that effort. Though he’s little known outside of Alaska, Wackowski, a 38-year-old with connections to the oil and gas industry and no experience in federal land management, has played an outsize role in executing the administration’s priorities. And he has done so with a heavy hand, frequently clashing with agency scientists and using the power of his position—the only Department of Interior political appointee outside of Washington—to intimidate those who are seen as standing in the way. Early on in the environmental review process, FWS employees were told that if they raised concerns about the science or suggested overly protective measures for the refuge their name would be identified to Wackowski as an “obstructionist.” At one point, according to multiple sources, Wackowski threatened to fire the FWS regional director and transfer the refuge manager after an internal memo was leaked to the Washington Post .

According to interviews with more than a dozen current and former DOI employees, including three who previously held the position of senior adviser, Wackowski has frequently involved himself in scientific matters typically left to career employees and has often favored corporate interests.

About the reporter

Adam Federman

Adam Federman

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations.

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