During a testy confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the nation’s largest land steward told senators that he would take steps to prevent conflicts of interest and to improve ethics guidelines at the Interior Department.
A former lobbyist who represented oil and gas interests, David Bernhardt has been dogged by questions about his own ethics during his short run as the Acting Interior Secretary.
Democrats and environmental groups have accused the former Deputy Interior Secretary of making policy decisions that favor former clients.
Bernhardt defended himself in front of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, saying that he has and will continue to work “to reduce regulatory burdens without sacrificing environmental outcomes.”
During his opening statement, an audience member seated behind Bernhardt donned a green “Swamp Thing” mask and continued to listen on.
Bernhardt is no stranger to criticism, nor Washington theater.
The 49-year old lawyer and Colorado-native has been working in Washington for decades as a lobbyist and in a previous role at the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration.
Bernhardt, for his part, played up his background as a Westerner and as a conservationist during his opening statements.
“I love the outdoors and to hunt and fish,” Bernhardt said.
Republicans lauded his experience and background working on land, water and energy issues, citing it as a reason he should be confirmed — an end that is little in doubt, given Republican control of the Senate.
Energy dominance agenda
But it’s Bernhardt’s time as a lobbyist and his role in Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda that’s drawn the most attention from his critics.
With Bernhardt in a leadership role, the Interior Department, which manages roughly one-fifth of all the land in the United States, has moved to open up huge swaths of land to oil and gas leasing. It has also looked to open up federal waters to oil and gas exploration. The moves have helped usher in billions of dollars in lease sales, but some worry about the environmental cost and whether Bernhardt should have to recuse himself from certain policy decisions.
“You are so conflicted,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, during the hearing. “You’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters that I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day,” or risk violating the agency’s ethics standards.
Wyden cited newly released documents and a story from the New York Times showing that Bernhardt had blocked the release of a scientific report showing that three widely used pesticides could present risks to more than a thousand imperiled species.
Bernhardt said he stopped its release because it needed further legal review.
It wasn’t the first controversial policy decision Bernhardt has made or been involved with.
As deputy secretary of Interior, he led an effort to revise conservation plans for the greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that lives across tens of millions of acres of the American West, which would allow for more oil and gas development in critical habitat for the bird. The finalized plans were released earlier this month.
As a lawyer, Bernhardt lobbied for Halliburton Energy Services and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade group which represents dozens of oil companies. Many oil and gas companies said the earlier Obama-era conservation plans for the ground-dwelling bird were too restrictive.
Bernhardt has also been criticized for his involvement in water issues in California, where he used to represent the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the country.
An investigation by member station KQED found that the Trump administration has ordered federal biologists to do an environmental analysis about water distributions there under unprecedented deadlines and with little transparency.
“With nearly two dozen former clients that have business before the agency, David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest who is uniquely unfit to serve as Interior Secretary,” says Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.
Ethics accusations and numerous investigations led to the downfall of Bernhardt’s predecessor and Trump’s first pick to lead the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke.
The former Interior Secretary and Montana congressman resigned late last year, citing unwarranted attacks on himself and his family.