Quantcast

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

Politics
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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sam Cooper

By Sam Cooper

Thomas Edison once said, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!"

Read More Show Less
A NOAA research vessel at a Taylor Energy production site in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2018. NOAA

The federal government is looking into the details from the longest running oil spill in U.S. history, and it's looking far worse than the oil rig owner let on, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Zero Waste Kitchen Essentials

Simple swaps that cut down on kitchen trash.

Sponsored

By Kayla Robbins

Along with the bathroom, the kitchen is one of the most daunting areas to try and make zero waste.

Read More Show Less
Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

Read More Show Less
Damage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from the 2016 occupation. USFWS

By Tara Lohan

When armed militants with a grudge against the federal government seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon back in the winter of 2016, I remember avoiding the news coverage. Part of me wanted to know what was happening, but each report I read — as the occupation stretched from days to weeks and the destruction grew — made me so angry it was hard to keep reading.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Computer model projection of temperature anomalies across Europe on June 27. Temperature scale in °C. Tropicaltidbits.com

A searing heat wave has begun to spread across Europe, with Germany, France and Belgium experiencing extreme temperatures that are set to continue in the coming days.

Read More Show Less
Skull morphology of hybrid "narluga" whale. Nature / Mikkel Høegh Post

In the 1980s, a Greenlandic subsistence hunter shot and killed a whale with bizarre features unlike any he had ever seen before. He knew something was unique about it, so he left its abnormally large skull on top of his toolshed where it rested until a visiting professor happened upon it a few years later.

Read More Show Less
A house under construction with plastic bottles filled with sand to build shelters that better withstand the climate of the country where temperatures reach up to 50° C Awserd in the Saharawi refugee camp Dakhla on Dec. 31, 2018 in Tindouf, Algeria. Stefano Montesi / Corbis / Getty Images

A UN expert painted a bleak picture Tuesday of how the climate crisis could impact global inequality and human rights, leading to a "climate apartheid" in which the rich pay to flee the consequences while the rest are left behind.

Read More Show Less