David Bernhardt confirmed as Secretary of the Interior

The former oil lobbyist has connections with industries that could profit from his decisions managing the nation’s natural and cultural resources.

 

This article was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

David Bernhardt has been confirmed as the 53rd secretary of the Interior Department.

The Senate voted 56-41, mostly along party lines, to confirm the Colorado native and former oil and gas lobbyist, who has served as the Interior Department’s acting chief since Secretary Ryan Zinke stepped down in January amid mounting ethics scandals.

Three Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), as well as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), joined Republicans in voting for the nominee.

As deputy secretary, Bernhardt played a key, behind-the-scenes role in gutting environmental regulations and advancing the Trump administration’s fossil fuel-centric “energy dominance” agenda. He brings to the top post a slew of potential conflicts of interests stemming from his years as an energy lobbyist, experience that has earned him labels like the “ultimate D.C. swamp creature.” He’s come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks after two New York Times articles showed he intervened to block a scientific report on the threat certain pesticides pose to endangered species and continued to lobby for a former client months after signing papers promising to cease such activity.

Prior to Bernhardt’s confirmation, several Senate Democrats wrote a letter calling for the Interior Department’s internal watchdog to investigate allegations that he suppressed science by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vocal critic, requested Monday that the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia “thoroughly investigate potential civil and criminal violations” of lobbying rules by Bernhardt and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law firm where for eight years he lobbied on behalf of oil, gas, mining and agricultural interests.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to urge colleagues to vote against Bernhardt, describing him as a “hardened enemy of climate science” who has “made a career of harming the environment, subverting environmental protections and helping polluters sidestep federal regulation.”

“President Trump, for all his talk of draining the swamp, wants to add yet another Washington swamp creature lobbyist to his Cabinet,” Schumer said.

David Bernhardt smiles during his confirmation hearing on March 28. Activists from Greenpeace wore swamp creature masks during the hearing and were asked to leave.
Screen capture from CSPAN

Despite Democrats having plenty of new fodder, Bernhardt sailed through his confirmation hearing earlier this month, where protesters were spotted donning bright green swamp creature masks. He won the support of two key Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Manchin, the committee’s ranking member, and Heinrich, who in 2017 voted against confirming Bernhardt as deputy secretary.

Manchin said in a speech on the Senate floor ahead of Thursday’s vote that Bernhardt is “clearly qualified” for the role, noting his experience serving as a top Interior official under former President George W. Bush. He added that during recent meetings he told Bernhardt he plans to hold him and the department to the “highest ethical standards.”

Bernhardt is among several Interior officials who have been accused of violating Trump’s ethics pledge, which bars political appointees in the executive branch from participating in certain matters involving former employers or clients for two years. He maintains he has complied with all ethics rules and, in a February memo to staff, touted his efforts to improve the agency’s “badly neglected” ethics infrastructure. 

There are more than 20 groups listed on Bernhardt’s recusal form. Ex-clients have landed at least 70 meetings with top Interior officials since President Donald Trump took office, as HuffPost previously reported.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Wyden predicted that confirming Bernhardt would lead to an “ethical typhoon” resembling that of Zinke’s tenure. 

“There is not one bit of evidence that David Bernhardt objected to Ryan Zinke’s corruption,” he said.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) came to Bernhardt’s defense ahead of the final vote, calling him a man of integrity and condemning the “Washington D.C. political smear machine” that he said is working to “sully” Bernhardt’s name.

For the most part, Bernhardt has managed to stay out of the public spotlight. But he came under fire shortly after Zinke’s departure for his handling of the federal agency during the partial government shutdown. As trash and sanitation issues plagued parks around the country, Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to tap into park entrance fees to keep sites open. And as an estimated 800,000 federal workers went without paychecks, the Department of the Interior continued to prioritize fossil fuel development, approving oil and gas leases and amending the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s shutdown contingency plan to bring back dozens of furloughed employees to continue work on offshore drilling activities.

Activists opposing Bernhardt's confirmation gather for a photo at the steps of the capitol.

Bernhardt’s work as deputy secretary has also included weakening protections for at-risk species. In March, the Interior Department amended an Obama administration rule for the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling game bird, to allow for increased oil, gas and other economic development in Western states. The agency is also pressing ahead with plans to chip away at the Endangered Species Act. That proposal would require Interior to consider economic effects when listing species and do away with a provision of the law that automatically extends the same protections to plants and animals listed as threatened as the law affords those listed as endangered. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last August, Bernhardt said, “Automatically treating the threatened species as endangered places unnecessary regulatory burden on our citizens without additional benefit to the species.”

Bernhardt joins an ever-growing list of Trump Cabinet members with deep ties to the industries they now regulate. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in February. Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, heads the Department of Health and Human Services. And Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, is the acting secretary of defense.

As head of the Interior Department, Bernhardt will oversee more than 70,000 employees and be the chief steward of 500 million acres of federal land — roughly one-fifth of the U.S. — including the 59 national parks. 

Environmental groups condemned Thursday’s confirmation. 

“Bernhardt will be even worse than Ryan Zinke,” Kierán Suckling, executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “He’s the perfect distillation of Trump’s contempt for the natural world. He has spent decades scheming to undercut protections for wildlife and public lands across the country.”

Chris D'Angelo is a reporter for HuffPost, based in Washington, D.C. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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