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Oil Execs Brag About Having ‘Direct Access’ to Trump’s Pick for Interior Secretary

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Acting Secretary David Bernhardt visited Watson Hopper Inc., a manufacturer of rigs and oil drilling equipment in Hobbs, New Mexico on Feb. 6, 2019. Tami A. Heilemann / DOI

Oil executives gathered for a conference laughed about their "unprecedented" access to Trump administration officials, according to a recording obtained by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

In the recording, taken at a June 2017 meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) at a Ritz-Carlton in Southern California, members expressed excitement about one official in particular: David Bernhardt, who had been nominated that April to be deputy secretary at the Department of Interior (DOI). Bernhardt would be confirmed the following month.

"We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues," IPAA political director Dan Naatz said in the recording.


Bernhardt, who once acted as the association's lawyer, has risen even higher since the recording. He has been acting as interior secretary since former Secretary Ryan Zinke left amid various ethics investigations and has been nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the post permanently. He faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee March 28.

In the recording, IPAA CEO Barry Russell spoke of work Bernhardt had done for the IPAA to lead a legal group challenging endangered species' rules. "Well, the guy that actually headed up that group is now the No. 2 at Interior," he said. "So that's worked out well." As deputy secretary, Bernhardt pushed to weaken endangered species protections by proposing to allow regulators to consider economic factors before listing species.

As a lobbyist and lawyer, Bernhardt worked on behalf of around 40 clients, 18 of which were involved in energy. He has been referred to as a "walking conflict of interest" and carries a card with him reminding him of all the former clients he must recuse himself from dealing with directly at the DOI. However, a DOI spokesperson said he had not communicated with Naatz or Russell.

"Acting Secretary David Bernhardt has had no communication or contact with either Barry Russell or Dan Naatz," the spokesperson said in a statement reported by The Hill.

In the recording, the IPAA didn't just express excitement about Bernhardt. Rather, they were thrilled by the pro-energy culture of the entire Trump team, which, they said, contrasted with the approach taken by the Obama administration.

"It's really a new thing for us," Russell said. "For example, next week I'm invited to the White House to talk about tax code. Last week we were talking to Secretary Pruitt, and in about two weeks we have a meeting with Secretary Zinke. So we have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great."

The laughter came when Russell described a meeting with then-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt, who has since resigned amidst various scandals. Here is the exchange, as transcribed by Reveal:

"Scott Pruitt, he came from Oklahoma, and we have a lot of friends in common and I thought that's what we were going to talk about, we did that for about three minutes," Russell said. "And then he started asking very technical questions about methane, about ozone … and if Scott Pruitt thought he was going to go deep nerd …"

The audience began laughing.

"And what was really great is there was about four or five EPA staffers there, who were all like, 'Write that down, write that down,' all the way through this,'' Russell continued. "And when we left, I said that was just our overview."

The audience laughed again.

"So it's really a new world for us and very, very helpful."

While Pruitt and Zinke have since left the administration, this culture of access has had real environmental consequences. Of five items on a policy wish-list distributed at the meeting, four have been implemented by the DOI, Reveal reported. They are:

  1. A rollback of rules to protect water from fracking pollution
  2. A reversal of rules limiting methane releases by the oil industry
  3. A reversal of an Obama-era "no net loss" policy requiring oil companies to restore ecosystems as a condition of development permits
  4. An end to a long-standing policy of fining energy companies whose activities lead to the accidental deaths of migratory birds

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that David Bernhardt was deputy secretary at the DOI when the recording was taken in June of 2017. The article has been revised to indicate that the recording took place after his nomination in April 2017 and before his confirmation that July.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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