Ethical Conflicts of New Interior Secretary Most in Trump Cabinet
“David Bernhardt’s ties to Big Oil — the very industry he is tasked w/ regulating — are as deep as an oil well. Those ties should be disqualifying for anyone nominated to head the Interior.”
On April 11, the Senate confirmed David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, to oversee America’s public lands as the Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt previously served as deputy secretary under former secretary Ryan Zinke, until Zinke was forced to resign amidst numerous ethics scandals. Since then, Bernhardt has been serving as President Trump’s acting secretary of the Interior.
The Interior is entrusted with around 700 million acres of public lands and 1.7 billion acres off the country’s shores, in addition to the rich natural resources and fossil fuels that lie beneath them. Democratic senators expressed concern that Bernhardt will inevitably oversee companies he previously lobbied for, noting the troubling meetings with fossil fuel interests the newly confirmed Interior Secretary has already held.
Bernhardt Dubbed Most Ethically Conflicted in Trump’s Cabinet
According to the Center for American Progress, Bernhardt holds the most ethical conflicts of any cabinet position in the Trump administration. Bernhardt has been mocked for carrying around an index card listing companies and people he should avoid due to conflicts of interests.
Democrats are now investigating whether Bernhardt has violated federal record-keeping laws. The Interior Department has released records from about two-thirds of Bernhardt’s time in office, but 133 days of records remain missing. One unveiled report shows that while serving as Ryan Zinke’s deputy secretary last year, Bernhardt gave the keynote address to a gathering of oil and gas executives at the Trump International Hotel and was scheduled to dine with the board of oil company BP.
According to Politico, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) gave the Interior Department until late April to address Democrats’ accusations that Secretary David Bernhardt may have been destroying his official calendars to hide meetings with former clients that would benefit from the Interior’s policies.
“This record raises questions about whether all of the Acting Secretary’s meetings are being captured and preserved in accordance with DOI’s record schedules,” Rep. Cummings wrote in a March 19 letter to NARA.
Rep. Jim Jordan (Oh-R), accused Democrats of instigating a “partisan” investigation of Interior’s record-keeping practices. Representative Jordan’s complaint is questionable in the context of the Interior Department’s recent history. Last year, the Interior’s inspector general referred a probe to the Justice Department regarding a deal former Secretary Ryan Zinke struck with Halliburton in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Zinke faced at least 15 investigations during his time in the position, including his connections a real estate deal with a corporation the Interior is supposed to regulate.
Three Democrats — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — voted in Bernhardt’s favor, along with Angus King, an Independent from Maine. “I believe Mr. Bernhardt is clearly qualified to serve as secretary. He knows the Interior Department inside and out and he is well versed on all the issues that come before it,” said Sen. Manchin.
Manchin, who represents a coal-rich state, frequently breaks with his party on environmental issues. The Senator recently shocked Democrats by endorsing Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 re-election bid, saying he would travel to Maine to campaign for her if asked.
Other leading Democrats expressed dismay at the confirmation, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, who said, “Donald Trump campaigns on cleaning up the swamp and he does exactly the opposite when in office. An oil and gas lobbyist as head of the Department of Interior? My God. That’s an example of the swampiness of Washington if there ever was one.”
Multiple investigations by the New York Times show Bernhardt personally directing policies to weaken protections on endangered animals, as well as blocking scientific reports on the danger of pesticides. Bernhardt has been heavily involved with the offering of public lands (almost the size of South Carolina) for oil and gas leasing, and repealing national monument regulations on mining and development.
Senator Ed Markey similarly denounced the decision, tweeting, “David Bernhardt’s ties to Big Oil — the very industry he is tasked w/ regulating — are as deep as an oil well. Those ties should be disqualifying for anyone nominated to head the Interior. We must stop the pollution of our democracy by Big Oil interests.”
Will Bernhardt Open Floodgates For Offshore Drilling?
Secretary Bernhardt’s confirmation also raises concerns about offshore drilling.
“His unparalleled depth of experience at the department and knowledge of energy and conservation policies will serve our nation’s public lands and resources well,” said Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a lobbying group for offshore drilling companies. Many of those companies are former clients of Secretary Bernhardt.
A draft of Secretary Bernhardt’s plan to open most of the U.S.’s coastal waters to offshore drilling was released last year. Offshore drilling is widely denounced by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who believe it threatens tourism and coastal economies. Representatives from both parties fear repeating disasters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Secretary Bernhardt refuses to acknowledge the severity of climate change, and does not guarantee he will respect states’ rights to oppose drilling off of their coasts.
“We know with absolute certainty that Bernhardt will be a horrible secretary, because he had been a catastrophic deputy secretary — eager to do the bidding of his former clients, without regard to the impact on the public lands, endangered species or public health,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a think tank and consumer rights advocacy group.