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.
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.
“Part of the job is having the agencies carry out top-level policy directives,” said Pat Pourchot, who served as senior adviser for Alaska Affairs during the Obama administration. But he added, “You’ve got to keep a hands-off approach to honest, deliberate agency research and processes.”
Wackowski has done the opposite. In an unprecedented move, Wackowski was named co-chair of the international board that manages the Porcupine caribou herd, one of several important species the refuge was created to protect. The position has traditionally been held by FWS personnel. In that role, Wackowski has prevented the International Porcupine Caribou Board, made up of U.S. and Canadian members, from weighing in on the environmental review for oil and gas leasing in the refuge. Drilling in the refuge could disrupt the caribou’s traditional migration patterns and the way of life of native Alaskans who depend on them.
Wackowski, who previously worked for a company that conducts polar bear research on behalf of the energy industry in Alaska, has also been closely involved in the review process for seismic surveys of the refuge—used to locate oil and gas reserves—an activity that could threaten the already imperiled polar bear population in the southern Beaufort Sea. The federally listed subpopulation has declined by about 40 percent in the past few decades. By meeting with one of his former colleagues who works for a company that does polar bear surveys and sometimes provides data to FWS, Wackowski was found to have violated his ethics pledge, according to a recent investigation by the DOI inspector general. The report found that neither Wackowski nor the business benefited from the interaction and that Wackowski had acted under the mistaken belief that the communications were permissible. But one FWS employee in Alaska said Wackowski’s frequent contact with his former colleague was “very awkward” and raised concerns among staff internally. “He has done a lot of things prior special assistants haven’t done.”
DOI did not respond to detailed questions for this story. In a statement, a spokesperson referred to the allegations as “baseless” and a “disgusting” attack on Wackowski’s character. “Mr. Wackowski is a trusted member of Interior leadership who cares deeply about serving Alaskans and the American people,” DOI said.
But outside of the department and among some career employees, Wackowski’s performance has been viewed as the triumph of politics over science with long-term implications for the environment and public health.
“Given Wackowski’s background,” said Deborah Williams, who held Wackowski’s job for five years during the Clinton administration, “it is important to ask whether he, in his role as senior adviser, is representing the public interest.”
Caribou are one of the defining features of the Arctic landscape and also a staple of what is still predominately a subsistence diet among Native communities on the North Slope. The Gwich’in, who live just outside of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and oppose any development there, refer to the coastal plain as the “sacred place where life begins” because it serves as the birthing grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. The village of Nuiqsut, which sits west of the refuge and is now surrounded by oil development, has already seen notable changes in behavior of the central arctic herd, which, according to a recent USGS study, has begun to consistently avoid developed areas.
Not long after he was appointed in 2017, according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO from a former DOI employee, Wackowski took an unusually keen interest in the Bureau of Land Management’s approach to evaluating effects to caribou. He involved himself in the technical details of the environmental review process for oil and gas drilling in sensitive areas, sometimes dismissing the work of career employees and contractors who have worked with the department for decades, according to the documents. At one point, just three months into the job, he abruptly canceled a public meeting on the impact of development in the village of Nuiqsut without explanation, angering the tribal government. Meanwhile, DOI has also disbanded the North Slope’s subsistence advisory panel, which had been designed to foster communication and information sharing between the department and local governments.
According to the documents, Wackowski also has played a key role in shaping the department’s assessment of the impact of development on hunting and other resources, which will have long-lasting implications for the North Slope. In October 2017, when BLM was drafting its environmental analysis for the Greater Mooses Tooth 2 project—a major ConocoPhilips development in the National Petroleum Reserve west of the refuge—Wackowski effectively undermined the methodology used to evaluate how new infrastructure including roads, well pads and pipelines would affect subsistence use in Nuiqsut.
In a preliminary analysis largely drafted under the Obama administration, BLM had concluded the development would likely have a significant impact on when and where hunters pursued caribou—a finding that in theory could lead to the implementation of mitigation measures to make up for any losses. This is exactly what had happened with the earlier Greater Mooses Tooth 1 development in 2015 and it had prompted new mitigation rules by the Obama administration. In that case, ConocoPhillips paid $8 million into a reserve fund to offset a variety of negative effects on environmentally sensitive areas including wetlands and on subsistence use. (In one of his first executive orders, Trump rescinded the Obama-era policy and mitigation became voluntary.)
Wackowski largely rejected the BLM designations “major, moderate or minor” that had been used by the agency for years to indicate the estimated environmental impact on subsistence of the project under review. On a conference call in October 2017, he vigorously challenged the conclusions of the BLM experts and the contractor, whose research showed that just under 50 percent of Nuiqsut’s hunters were likely to modify their behavior if GMT2 were approved. Using DOI criteria and past practice, that would constitute a major impact. Using mostly anecdotal evidence, Wackowski argued that hunters in Nuiqsut had adapted to the ongoing development and that if fewer than 50 percent of them changed their hunting behavior then the impact would not qualify as major.
At one point, according to a transcript of the phone call obtained by POLITICO, Wackowski accused a BLM employee of “misusing” and “misrepresenting” the data. He also told the agency its “analysis was not sound.” The contractor said the findings were based on “hard data” and that impact criteria were “very useful.” Even though the BLM conclusions were based on 40 years of research and observation, Wackowski’s view ultimately prevailed, lowering the bar for oil and gas development across Alaska’s North Slope.
After receiving requests from ConocoPhilips and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the largest landowners in Alaska and a Murkowski supporter, BLM agreed to remove the impact criteria from the draft environmental impact statement. “We received feedback from both DOI personnel, ConocoPhillips and ASRC that the impact criteria was too subjective and warranted review and refinement,” the project coordinator wrote in an email to the BLM Alaska state director.
One former BLM employee raised concerns that removing the impact criteria might violate scientific integrity. “Without knowing how far this will go, I would say that I seem to be verging on violating some of the core ethical principles of [my field],” the employee wrote to a supervisor.
Wackowski was appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as co-chair of the advisory board that provides recommendations on management of the Porcupine caribou herd, replacing a longtime Fish and Wildlife employee, though he appears to have no expertise in the subject. (Wackowski has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in science and technology intelligence.) The International Porcupine Caribou Board is made up of delegates from the U.S. and Canada and has long advocated for protecting the refuge’s coastal plain, where more than 200,000 caribou migrate and give birth every spring. After traveling across the coastal plain, the herd makes its way into the Canadian Arctic and is an important resource for First Nations people in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. According to the agreement that established the board in 1987, one of its primary objectives is to “conserve the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitat” and to minimize adverse long-term effects.
Sitting on the board has given Wackowski an opportunity to influence the group’s response to what will be the most profound change the refuge has ever seen. (At one point when the acting director of FWS was preparing for hearings on the refuge, Wackowski sent him background material in which he claimed that, “caribou do NOT calve in the 1002 area.” This was incorrect: the coastal plain, sometimes referred to as “the 1002,” provides critical calving habitat for the caribou.) “It was a surprise to us,” said Craig Machtans, the Canadian co-chair of the caribou herd board. “FWS had a member in good standing as chair. And they replaced him.” It was a surprise to the FWS, too, which was not notified of the change until a month after it happened, according to an FWS employee.
“What they were trying to do was shore up control and influence on anything related to the coastal plain,” that FWS employee told POLITICO.
One way of doing that was by preventing the board from weighing in on the environmental impact statement and suggesting a preferred alternative, which required consensus from members on both the Canadian and U.S. sides. Canadian members of the board were eager to submit comments on the draft environmental impact statement for oil and gas leasing in the refuge but needed the cooperation of their American counterparts. Though the Canadians were ready to move forward, Wackowski and other members on the U.S. side wouldn’t agree to submit comments, which effectively prevented the board from doing so. In the end, the Porcupine caribou board did not comment on what is the most important development to take place in the refuge since it was created 40 years ago.
Wackowski has also tightly controlled public information related to the refuge.
In August 2018, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the coastal plain—the largest ever recorded on the North Slope—rattling homes in the village of Kaktovik and sending tremors as far away as Fairbanks, hundreds of miles away. Normally the U.S. Geological Survey, which is part of DOI, would respond quickly to such an event, often fielding calls from reporters around the world and explaining any risks to the human population or nearby infrastructure. (In this case, there were concerns that the Trans-Alaska pipeline could have been damaged.)
But this time, USGS was slow to respond to several queries. According to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by POLITICO, early that morning Wackowski sent an email to the USGS regional director reminding her that any inquiries related to the wildlife refuge needed to go through him; this was a departure from the usual protocol for handling a major natural disaster, which allows USGS to bypass even normal channels of approval within the public affairs office “when timeliness is critical for public health and/or safety.” Instead, Wackowski told USGS he wanted to review media requests and be given time to “pipe up on any concerns” before interviews with staff scientists were granted.
More than 24 hours later, and long after the state’s earthquake center had put out a news release stating that it “anticipate[d] a very active aftershock sequence,” USGS officials were still asking Wackowski if the agency’s leading expert on the subject could share information with the media.
“What made this unusual is that USGS had to seek permission to talk about an earthquake,” a former USGS employee familiar with the department’s response told me. Even then, USGS had to assure DOI officials it would not comment on the potential impact of the earthquake on future oil and gas development in the refuge—one of the most important and politically sensitive priorities for this administration—according to emails leaked to POLITICO.
Because the quake happened in such a remote location and there were no injuries it barely registered outside of Alaska. But Wackowski’s attempt to control the messaging is part of a broader pattern in DOI to limit debate and discussion on anything to do with the refuge. Wackowski, according to several career employees, has made it difficult for them to freely share information that might be perceived as hindering the administration’s pro-development agenda. He has also suggested that FWS staff could be removed from the review team or even lose their jobs if they raised concerns about the science or imposed overly restrictive measures on oil and gas development in the region. “If you come across as not being on board with that, your name could get elevated to Steve Wackowski as an obstructionist,” one FWS employee who has since left the agency was told by a supervisor.
Even as Wackowski has influenced the flow of information within his agency, he has actively sought data outside the department from a former colleague, a violation of his ethics pledge, according to a report by the DOI’s inspector general. Wackowski has been intimately involved in the research and review process for seismic surveys in the refuge. He communicated and met with a former colleague who does polar bear data collection and mapping on the North Slope. This triggered an ethics investigation by DOI’s inspector general. According to the recently released report, a DOI ethics attorney said that if they had known about Wackowski’s contact with his former colleague “they would have advised against it.”
DOI wouldn’t confirm that Wackowski was the subject of the report but told The Hill in an emailed statement: “The report is clear that the senior interior official in question acted responsibly and with the highest integrity.” The statement also attributed the events to a “miscommunication and misunderstanding” between Wackowski and the ethics office.
Before he joined DOI, Wackowski spent several years doing drone-operated survey work for Fairweather Science, a company that provides an array of services to oil and gas companies operating in the region. Fairweather is one of the only companies that conducts polar bear den monitoring using infrared cameras, which has become an increasingly important part of the permitting process as sea ice diminishes and greater numbers of bears come inland to den during the winter months. The refuge’s coastal plain has become an especially critical region for polar bears, with the highest density of denning habitat along the North Slope.
According to the inspector general’s report, in late 2017, Wackowski requested polar bear data from his former colleague to be used for a “FWS/USGS/BLM science experiment.” The Trump administration’s ethics pledge prohibits political appointees from meeting with former employers for two years; Wackowski, who had been working for Fairweather until he joined DOI, was communicating with his former colleague just several months after he was appointed, which the IG’s report considered to fall under its prohibition. The following year, Wackowski participated in a meeting with the same colleague in which polar bear research and data was discussed. He did not contact the DOI’s ethic’s office on either occasion. Wackowski told the IG that he believed conflict of interest rules did not apply to communication involving “purely scientific data” even though no such exemption exists for current federal employees.