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David Bernhardt, Trump’s DOI Chief Nominee is Former Oil and Gas Lobbyist

Is David Bernhardt a successful reformer of the Department of Interior or an errand boy for the oil and gas industry?

David Bernhardt, President Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), is under the microscope of House Democrats as he approaches a Senate confirmation hearing.

Trump announced his nomination of Bernhardt on February 4, but the 49-year-old former lobbyist has been the acting secretary of the interior since Ryan Zinke’s resignation in early January.

After Zinke’s run as secretary ended with 17 ethics complaints against him, Bernhardt faces an involved House Natural Resources Committee and a mixed opinion in the public concerning his lengthy experience in Washington and in lobbying for oil and gas lobbying industry.

David Bernhardt’s Career History

Bernhardt was born in Rifle, Colorado and attended the University of Northern Colorado to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and business. After graduating in 1990, he continued on to law school at George Washington University.

Bernhardt’s political career began as a staffer for Colorado Representative Scott McInnis, a Republican who served six terms in Congress from 1993-2005.

After passing the bar exam, Bernhardt was hired by a lobbying firm before joining the U.S. Department of the Interior for the first time, as a lawyer under the George W. Bush administration. In 2006, Bush nominated Bernhardt to become solicitor at the DOI, a position he held for three years.

He then left government work temporarily and joined lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farmer Schreck. Bernhardt’s clients were in the natural resources field, and included companies such as Cobalt International Energy, Statoil Gulf Services, and Taylor Energy.

Bernhardt returned to the Interior Department under the Trump Administration in 2017. Despite a letter of opposition from 150 conservation groups citing his ties to industries he would be charged with regulating, the Senate confirmed his position as DOI deputy secretary, a position he held until Zinke’s resignation.

Bernhardt Zinke swear in

David L. Bernhardt is sworn in by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke as the United States Deputy Secretary of Interior.

How Will David Bernhardt Lead the Interior Department?

In his role as deputy secretary, Bernhardt pushed for several rollbacks on regulations and conservation laws. He has been vocal in his opposition to long-standing pieces of the Endangered Species Act, and calls for a revision after “the standards for down-listing (from endangered to threatened) and altogether delisting a species have been pushed higher than the standards for initially grating protecting under the act.”

As Bush-era solicitor of the DOI, Bernhardt pushed for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and later supported Zinke’s monumental opening of off-shore waters for drilling.

He has also supported a plan which removes protections enacted by the Obama Administration on sage grouse. If this protection were dismantled, millions of acres of habitat would become available for energy and mineral development.

Finally, Bernhardt advocated for a reduction in the studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Critics Flag David Bernhardt’s Lack of Transparency

Critics of Bernhardt focus on the lack of transparency and clarity he has shown relating to his calendar and meetings held during his time in the interior department.

The calendar, which is public information published on the DOI website, shows Bernhardt on a “call” or “exterior meeting” without detailing the other parties engaged in these appointments.

Because of his extensive connections with the oil and gas industry, this lack of clarity has struck as a red flag to certain House Democrats such as Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, a prominent critic of former Secretary Zinke and the National Resources committee chairman.

Grijalva submitted a letter of concern on February 7, asking for more information about more than 150 of the entries on Bernhardt’s calendar from August 2017 to September 2018, during his time as deputy secretary under Zinke.

“His years of lobbying on behalf of clients who stand to profit from Interior policy decisions are cause for serious concern,” Grijalva said in a statement to Earther when Bernhardt stepped in as the acting Secretary. “We intend to continue conducting vigorous oversight of how Interior political appointees arrive at major policy decisions, who they consult, who they ignore, and who stands to benefit financially.”

Bernhardt is exempt from comment on any issue related to clients he represented within the final two years of his time at Brownstein Hyatt Farmer Schreck. This restriction will lift on August 1, 2019.

Who is Supporting Bernhardt?

While his critics may have referred to David Bernhardt as a “swamp creature” of Washington D.C., several industry representatives have voiced their support of the nominations, and House Republicans seek to expedite the confirmation process.

The American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall expressed the agricultural industry’s support for the candidate, citing the streamlining of conservation regulations and the increase in land that can be used for varied businesses, including farming and ranching.

“Bernhardt has been successful in leading a comprehensive reorganization of the Interior Department to improve the effectiveness and transparency of DOI bureaus,” Duvall said in a statement.

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Coastal plain Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said she plans to schedule and show her support in the confirmation hearing which would finalize Bernhardt’s new role. Murkowski, a Republican, is the chair of the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources.

“I strongly support David Bernhardt to serve as the next secretary of the interior,” she said in a statement. “He already has helped the department accomplish a great deal for Alaska and the nation both as deputy secretary and as acting secretary, and he is more than capable of leading on a permanent basis.”

Representative Rob Bishop and the Congressional Western Caucus have both expressed their vehement support of Bernhardt as well, referencing his experience and praising him as a hunter and angler.


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