WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday announced he would nominate David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps.
In a message on Twitter, Trump wrote, “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”
While Zinke had been the public face of some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history, Bernhardt was the one quietly pulling the levers to carry them out, opening millions of acres of public land and water to oil, gas and coal companies. He is described by allies and opponents alike as having played a crucial role in advancing what Trump has described as an “energy dominance” agenda for the country.
“Bernhardt has really been running the show, directing the policy shop in a very strong way,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at University of Colorado Law School. Echoing a frequent critique of Bernhardt, Squillace emphasized that the former energy lobbyist and lawyer, if confirmed by the Senate, would have broad authority to shape rules that affect his former clients. “That’s my concern with Bernhardt, his ties to industry,” Squillace said.
Trump has pushed the Interior Department to strip away regulations on the oil industry and open new lands and waters to drilling.
After Trump ordered Zinke to open almost the entire U.S. coastline to offshore drilling, Bernhardt did the heavy lifting of developing the plan, which Zinke called “a new path for energy dominance in America.” And when the president told the department to weaken safety regulations on offshore drilling equipment, the agency’s proposal said its plan “would fortify the administration’s objective of facilitating energy dominance” by encouraging domestic oil and gas production.
As Bernhardt prepares to take the helm, he is well aware that he will face accusations of conflicts of interest. The issue came up repeatedly in his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing for the deputy job.
Bernhardt was narrowly confirmed to his current post by a vote of 53-43, with most Democrats voting against him. He is likely to face further scrutiny in his next confirmation hearings. If enough Democrats opposed his nomination, they could block a procedural motion requiring 60 votes to bring his confirmation to the Senate floor.
Bernhardt, who was also a top interior official in the George W. Bush administration, went on to work for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. As a partner in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he lobbied for the oil companies Cobalt International Energy and Samson Resources. His legal clients have included the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Halliburton Energy Services, the oil- and gas-extraction firm once led by Dick Cheney, the former vice president.
In August 2017, Bernhardt signed an ethics letter saying he would recuse himself from policy decisions that might stand to benefit former clients specifically.
If confirmed, Bernhardt will lead a sprawling department that oversees the nation’s nearly 500 million acres of public land, including vast national monuments and protected wilderness areas. Already, in little more than a year as the department’s deputy, he has overseen numerous polices aimed at opening public lands and waters to mining, drilling, farming and other development.
Environmentalists see him as a threat. “David Bernhardt is the most dangerous man in America for endangered species and public lands,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, adding that he “has been dismantling basic protections for lands that belong to all of us and the vulnerable species, like the sage grouse, that depend on them.”
This year, Bernhardt oversaw the revision of a program to protect tens of millions of acres of habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, a puffy-chested, chickenlike bird that roams over 10 oil-rich Western states. His proposal to change that plan, made public in December, would strip protections from about 9 million acres of the sage grouse habitat, a move that would open more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration.
Bernhardt has also helped shepherd policies such as loosening the standards of the Endangered Species Act, speeding the path to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new oil and gas drilling, and reducing the boundaries of national monuments to open the land to mining and drilling.
Among the first major decisions awaiting Bernhardt will be how to handle the administration’s plan to open the nation’s coastlines to offshore drilling — one of the issues for which Zinke is under investigation. After the Trump administration in early 2018 announced it would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters, Zinke made a surprise announcement a few days later on Twitter that he would exempt Florida from that plan.
The statement, which was accompanied by a photograph of Zinke and Rick Scott, the former Florida governor who was then running for a Senate seat, was seen as politically motivated. A federal investigation is continuing into whether it violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their offices to influence elections.
Governors of other coastal states have said that they, too, would like to be exempt from the drilling, and that if the plan to exempt Florida but not other states goes forward, they will sue the department.
Bernhardt will now decide whether to enact Zinke’s pledge to Scott, who went on to win his Senate campaign.