Brian Battaile/U.S. Geological Survey via AP, File)
Any substantial participation by Stephen Wackowski in Interior’s decision to approve major seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a project proposed by his former colleagues — may have violated his obligations to avoid conflicts of interest as a public servant. Prior to his role at DOI, Mr. Wackowski worked at Fairweather Science, LLC, an eight member firm that facilitates fossil fuels development by, among other services, monitoring for polar bear activity. Fairweather’s founder, Jeff Hastings, is also CEO and Chairman of the Board of SAExploration, which recently submitted an application for a major seismic survey in ANWR. Records and media reports indicate that despite his prior employment, Mr. Wackowski has communicated with former colleagues even as the Department has announced its plans to evaluate SAE’s application by means of an Environmental Assessment instead of a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement. The Department appears to have reached this decision despite findings that the region’s dwindling polar bear population would be further threatened by the SAE project. Mr. Wackowski’s engagement with his former colleagues could violate conflict of interest laws.
The Trump administration has made little secret of its desire to drill in ANWR regardless of the environmental consequences. The refuge remains one of the last unspoiled areas of public lands north of the Arctic circle, and is home to a number of threatened species.
Despite this concern, Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has dismissed the need for Environmental Impact Statements related to ANWR development, claiming that “no one on the planet reads” them. Even as the global polar bear population continues to suffer the effects of climate change, the Trump administration appears poised to approve the SAE project.
We sent a letter to the Department of Interior Deputy Inspector General demanding an investigation into these potential conflicts of interest. The public deserves to know whether Stephen Wackowski is helping to short-circuit crucial environmental reviews to ram through lucrative contracts for his former partners. An investigation is warranted to find out if cronyism is happening on the taxpayer dime.
As we await a response from the Department, David Bernhardt is scheduled to appear before the Senate Energy Committee for his confirmation hearing next week. Acting Secretary Bernhardt likely will face questioning related to his conduct as both the Department’s Deputy Secretary and its Acting Secretary, which itself has raised ethical concerns. In July 2018, Democracy Forward filed suit against DOI for stonewalling the release of records related to Bernhardt’s numerous conflicts of interest.