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A Former Oil Lobbyist Is Now Officially in Charge of America’s Public Lands

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David Bernhardt arrives before testifying during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

The Senate voted to confirm former oil-and-gas lobbyist David Bernhardt as Secretary of the Interior Thursday, despite calls from Democrats and government watchdogs to investigate his past conduct, The New York Times reported.


The confirmation vote was 56-to-41, making Bernhardt—who has so many conflicts of interests he has to write them on an index card to make sure he doesn't deal with former clients—the least popular Interior Secretary in 40 years, the Center for American Progress (CAP) told The Washington Post. The second least popular was Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump's first pick to lead the Department of Interior (DOI), who resigned last year amidst a series of ethics investigations. A CAP analysis showed that Bernhardt bested his former boss in another respect: he has the most conflicts of interests of all 31 Trump cabinet-level nominees.

"It still amazes me," New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said of Bernhardt's nomination, as The New York Times reported. "Donald Trump campaigns on cleaning up the swamp and he does exactly the opposite when in office. An oil and gas lobbyist as head of the Department of Interior? My God. That's an example of the swampiness of Washington if there ever was one. And when are Donald Trump's supporters going to understand this?"

Bernhardt worked for the DOI under President George W. Bush, contributing to efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. He then spent seven years as a lobbyist with several fossil fuel clients including Halliburton; another of his clients was the powerful California utility Westlands Water District. Trump nominated him to serve as deputy secretary at DOI in April 2017, he was confirmed in July of that year and he has been acting as interior secretary since Zinke's resignation in December of 2018.

Democratic lawmakers and watchdogs have called for investigations into three of Bernhardt's reported actions, according to The New York Times.

  1. While at Interior, he reportedly acted to weaken endangered species protections for a California fish, an act that would benefit Westlands Water District.
  2. He continued to lobby on behalf of Westlands Water District up through the month of his April 2017 nomination, despite the fact that he had told the federal government he was no longer lobbying at that time, The New York Times reported.
  3. He blocked an about-to-be-released report detailing the risks posed by pesticides to more than 1,000 endangered species.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said he was shocked by that last revelation, reported in March. Shortly before, Bernhardt had come to Wyden's office and promised to abide by ethical standards.

"Why would you come to my office and lie?" Wyden asked Bernhardt during his confirmation hearing, The Washington Post reported.

Three Democratic Senators broke ranks with their colleagues to approve Bernhardt's confirmation: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Heinrich said that, since one-third of land in New Mexico is owned by DOI, it was important for the state to have a confirmed head of the agency, The New York Times reported.

"I need to be able to pick up the phone and talk to the Secretary of Interior on a regular basis. I'm not going to be able to get the Interior Secretary I wanted. We didn't win in 2016," he said, according to The New York Times. "But in New Mexico, I'm going to put my state and protection of public lands in my state first."

Heinrich had been the target of a campaign by the Western Values Project urging him to change his mind.

"Rushing to move forward with Bernhardt's nomination without clarification on his numerous ethical lapses and investigative requests is not only a disservice to the American people, but it also means that Interior will again be led by a secretary shrouded in scandal," Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said in a statement on Bernhardt's confirmation. "Make no mistake: a vote to confirm David Bernhardt for Interior Secretary was a vote against our American birthright and the viability of our public lands for future generations."

The group noted that Bernhardt already had a poor record on public lands. He has been instrumental in the push to open millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas development and oversaw the decision to keep national parks open but understaffed during the government shutdown.

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