By Timothy Cama and Miranda Green
February 5, 2019 - President Trump is picking David Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, to be the Interior Department’s next secretary.
“I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior,” Trump tweeted Monday.
Bernhardt, whose past clients include oil companies and others with business before the Interior Department, will lead an agency that oversees about 500 million acres as well as the energy production on that land.
He became the agency’s deputy secretary in 2017 and has led the department on an interim basis since former Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned amid ethics scandals in January. In the weeks since Zinke’s departure, Bernhardt has risen to the top of the list as the most likely candidate Trump would choose for the post.
“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”
Trump will have to send Bernhardt’s nomination to the Senate, where a majority of senators will have to approved him.
“It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our President,” Bernhardt said in a statement Monday.
The department has 70,000 employees in various agencies overseeing federal land, offshore drilling, endangered species and American Indian affairs, among other duties.
As deputy secretary, Bernhardt, a Colorado native, worked hand in hand with Zinke on his oil and gas leasing agenda and took the lead on many others, including the administration's push to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the rollback of a number of Endangered Species Act regulations.
In the past he’s called the ESA an “unnecessary regulatory burden.” The rule proposal he helped roll out in July would make it easier to delist an endangered species and would withdraw a policy that offered the same protections for threatened species as for endangered species unless otherwise specified.
Bernhardt has worked at Interior in various capacities, including solicitor during the George W. Bush administration. He has also had multiple stints at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients including Eni Petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy Services, Targa Energy, Noble Energy and the Westlands Water District.
Under ethics standards, he has recused himself from matters involving so many former clients that he carries a card with him listing the recusals.
Environmental groups immediately denounced Bernhardt’s nomination Monday.
“The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his commitment to pandering to oil, coal, and gas executives make former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging environmentalist in comparison. And Ryan Zinke was a disaster,” Vicky Wyatt, lead climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement.
“We already let Bernhardt do enough damage to our federal lands and waters as deputy secretary — we have to stop him before he destroys some of this country’s best ideas including the Endangered Species Act.”
“David Bernhardt’s nomination is an affront to America’s parks and public lands,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group that has been vocally critical of the Trump administration.
“As an oil and gas lobbyist, Bernhardt pushed to open vast swaths of public lands for drilling and mining. As deputy secretary, he was behind some of the worst policy decisions of Secretary Zinke’s sad tenure, including stripping protections for imperiled wildlife.”
The industries Interior regulates have largely been supportive of Bernhardt.
“We have always been supportive of acting Secretary Bernhardt. We supported his nomination and would support him if the president decides to nominate him to be secretary,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Monday.
“In these transitional phases, it’s important that we have strong political leadership, and I think he’s demonstrated that leadership in his time as acting secretary."
Supporters say Bernhardt’s agenda on fossil fuels would likely continue in the same vein as Zinke.
“Bernhardt possesses an impressive depth of experience at the Department and knowledge of Interior issues. His selection as secretary will assure that important energy and conservation policies will not miss a beat in the transition,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore oil and wind companies.
“Bernhardt understands that conservation and enhancement of natural resources can and does occur in conjunction with development of natural resources for energy — both on and offshore,” he said.
Bernhardt’s nomination will go to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for an initial hearing, and then a vote before the full Senate.
That panel’s leaders, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), both voted to confirm him to the deputy secretary position in 2017. Only three other Democrats — Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) — voted for him, and Heitkamp and Donnelly lost reelection last year.
Republicans hold 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats, so Bernhardt’s confirmation is likely to go through.
One of the most recent controversies surrounding Bernhardt involved the recent partial government shutdown, which furloughed most of Interior’s workforce.
He drew criticism after announcing the National Park Service would pull from their entrance fee revenue coffers in order to pay for the clean-up and maintenance of parks left up to the public during the shutdown.
“We must provide opportunities for people to access and enjoy our wonderful parks, and we must do so in a way that ensures the same opportunity for future generations to enjoy,” he wrote.
Environmentalists, park rangers and politicians alike questioned the legality of the move under the National Park Service Organic and Antideficiency Acts, the main pieces of legislation that govern federal parks and shutdown procedures respectively. The NPS is currently conducting a legal review of that decision.
Bernhardt also was criticized for bringing certain furloughed workers back to work on oil and natural gas drilling permits, offshore drilling and drilling in the Alaska refuge.
The House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee for Interior, led by Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), will hold a hearing this week on the work that Interior did during the shutdown and whether it was legal.
Bernhardt floated to the top of a crowded field of potential replacements for Zinke. The candidates included many current or former Republican politicians, according to people familiar with the process, such as ex-Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), ex-Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) and ex-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).