David Bernhardt and President Trump Photo: Joshua Roberts, Reuters

The Trump Administration did the expected and yesterday nominated Acting Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist and the top lawyer at Interior under Bush ’43 to take the top slot and officially replace Ryan Zinke.  Most industry experts expect that he will continue to push for expanding oil and gas drilling, fracking and mining on federal lands.  According to Reuters, as a lobbyist for a large D.C. firm, his clients included Noble Energy Inc, Rosemont Copper Co, Sempra Energy, and California’s Westlands Water District, and The New York Times said he also represented the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Halliburton Energy Services, the oil- and gas-extraction firm once led by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Bernhardt has been the agency’s Deputy, a role in which many of the policy details were delegated to him to develop because of his experience in the industry and in the Department.

  • According to The Times, after the President ordered most of the U.S. coastline to be opened for oil and gas drilling, Bernhardt developed the plan for leasing offshore tracts that Secretary Zinke boasted would create “a new path for energy dominance in America.”
  • A former lawyer who served with him called him “a rare ‘lawyer’s lawyer’ who prepares thoroughly for meetings, often being the only one in a room to have read full environmental assessments of projects and plans,” according to Reuters.

Secretary Zinke left the Interior Department at the beginning of January after a series of ethical lapses resulted in a Justice Department investigation of his conduct in office.  Bernhardt announced last Friday that fixing the lax ethical program at the Department would be a top priority for him.   But The Hill reported that Bernhardt blamed Obama appointees for what he called “an avalanche of ethical misconduct” (while pointing out only one such issue) and never mentioned his predecessor’s ethical issues or his own potential conflicts of interest with former clients.  Mr. Bernhardt was only narrowly confirmed to be the Deputy Secretary of Interior and Democrats have vowed to scrutinize his nomination to be Secretary.

Why This Matters:  If confirmed, Bernhardt would be a much more formidable Secretary than the prior one — as I (Monica) wrote in Bright Ideas a few weeks ago.  He knows the law, how to get things done in the Interior Department, and as a creature of Washington, he wants to leave the job in good standing so he might return again in some future Republican administration.  His “vow” to clean up the “mess” at the Interior Department would be a good one if only he appreciated what needs “cleaning up.”  But his failures both to call out Secretary Zinke’s ethical (and potentially criminal) issues and to be transparent about his own conflicts of interest and what he will be recused from going forward fundamentally undermine his credibility to lead the agency.

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