Interior secretary blames Congress for his inaction on climate change

There’s no law to make him address the climate and biodiversity crises, David Bernhardt said: ‘You guys come up with the shalls.’

 

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

Taking his previous statements even further, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers Tuesday that he is not obligated to combat climate change because there is no law requiring that he do so.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) pressed the newly confirmed agency chief on how he views his role in fighting the global warming crisis during a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee. “Isn’t this your job?” she asked.

Bernhardt responded by noting that there are over 600 instances in the law directing the Interior Department secretary to do certain things, including completing reports and making certain authorizations, but, he said, there is no such mandate for addressing planetary warming.

“You know what there’s not is a shall for ‘I shall manage the land to stop climate change,’ or something similar to that,” he said, pointing the finger at Congress.

“You guys come up with the shalls,” he added. 

Pingree swung back at Bernhardt’s assertion that he is not legally required to take any action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

“If there’s something legally stopping you, we’re Congress,” she said. “We make the laws. Let us know. We’ll work on that for you.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speaks to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

The hearing was the first of two appearances Bernhardt has before Congress this week to defend the Trump administration’s 2020 budget request, which calls for a 14% cut in funding for the Department of the Interior. But a good portion of the discussion focused on climate change, environmental protections and an ethics investigation against Bernhardt and several other agency officials. 

A sobering United Nations report released Monday found that up to 1 million species of land and marine species are at risk of extinction due to human actions. Neither Bernhardt nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency he oversees and that is primarily responsible for safeguarding the nation’s imperiled species, issued a statement about the report. 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the subcommittee’s chair, quoted from the U.N. report and told Bernhardt the “country is depending on you to help lead the fight along with us to combat these issues,” including the biodiversity and climate crises. She asked Bernhardt how he would incorporate the scientific findings into the agency’s activities and asked if he would rethink the administration’s push to boost domestic energy production.

“Are we going to stop oil and gas development because of this report? The answer to that is no.”

“Are we going to stop oil and gas development because of this report? The answer to that is no,” Bernhardt said. “Congress, you all, have the ability to decide whether we do anything on federal lands. ... If you have a view on what you want to happen, we’ll carry it out when you execute it. That is my position.” 

Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who was confirmed as agency secretary last month, told the subcommittee that he recognizes that the climate is changing, that human beings are “a contributing factor” and that the agency is taking the threat into account in its decision-making.

A pair of dire reports released last year, one from the United Nations and another from more than a dozen federal U.S. agencies, warned that world governments are running out of time to stave off catastrophic climate change. Still, the Trump administration has barreled ahead with its fossil fuel-centric “energy dominance” agenda. Approximately one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, according to a government report released by the Trump administration in November. 

Bernhardt, who brought with him to the job a slew of potential conflicts of interest from his days as an energy lobbyist, also faced tough questions Tuesday about alleged ethics violations. Interior’s internal watchdog recently opened two ethics probes ― the first of them just four days into Bernhardt’s tenure ― into multiple high-ranking interior officials, including the secretary.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) accused Bernhardt of working on behalf of corporate interests rather than the public.

Bernhardt stressed, as he has before, that he takes ethics extremely seriously, is working to improve the agency’s ethics program and is confident that he has complied with all rules and will be cleared at the end of the investigation.

“I take offense to the concept about profiting and your allegation that I’m here to do the bidding of...,” Bernhardt said.

“Prove me wrong, sir,” Quigley interjected.

“I came here just like you to do the work of the public,” Bernhardt said.

The two also traded verbal blows at the end of the hearing after Quigley questioned Bernhardt about his decision last week to roll back key offshore drilling safety regulations adopted in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

″I appreciate that you haven’t lost the fervor and enthusiasm you had in protecting your previous clients in your previous life,” Quigley said. 

“I’m for making the people of America better off and safer,” Bernhardt responded.

“Starting with your former clients,” Quigley snapped back. 

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

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