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Conservation News

Here's What You Need to Know About David Bernhardt, Nominee for Secretary of the Interior

Acting Secretary Bernhardt has years of experience in government—and longstanding professional ties to the oil industry. As the Senate considers his nomination, we break down his history.

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Since Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke resigned his post in December 2018 following a string of ethics probes, his former deputy David Bernhardt has been heading up the department as its acting head. Today, the Senate began the process of deciding whether to make his appointment permanent, as Bernhardt appeared before the Committee on Energy and National Resources to discuss his nomination.

To call Bernhardt a polarizing figure would be an understatement. The senate confirmed him to his current post in July 2017 in a 53-43 vote, mostly along party lines. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) has called his nomination “a brilliant move.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of his most prominent detractors, said the former lobbyist is a “walking conflict of interest.”

Here’s what you need to know about the man who’s up for one of the most powerful jobs in the outdoors.

He’s worked for the Department of the Interior before.

During the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt served in various posts throughout the DOI, first as deputy chief of staff to Secretary Gale Norton, and later as the department’s solicitor—its top lawyer. He returned to the department for a second stint as Deputy Secretary beginning in August 2017.

As a lawyer, he represented and lobbied for oil and mining companies.

Outside of government, Bernhardt has spent his career working for Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he served as a partner and chairman of the firm’s natural resources practice. His clients included a bevy of oil-industry giants such as Cobalt International Energy, Halliburton, and Samson Resources. He also represented the Independent Petroleum Association of America; At a private meeting in 2017, Barry Russell, the IPAA’s political director, told members that the organization had “direct access” to Bernhardt, and had “conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access, to endangered species, to a lot of issues.”

Outside of oil, Bernhardt’s firm has lobbied on behalf of clients like Cadiz Inc., whose plan to pump water from an aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert triggered lawsuits from environmental groups. In addition, the department’s decision to rescind a ban on selling bottled water in the national parks, just weeks after Bernhardt’s confirmation as deputy secretary, cast a spotlight on the firm’s prior relationship with bottled water producer Nestlé Waters. (In a statement, Nestlé called allegations that the company had influenced the NPS to revoke the ban “categorically false.”)

A total of 150 environmental groups opposed his nomination as deputy secretary in a letter sent to Congress in May 2017.

The letter, signed by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians, among others, claimed that Bernhardt was “laden with conflicts of interest,” citing his ties to clients regulated by the Department of the Interior.

He’s a hunter and angler.

Like his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt has a history as an outdoorsman. He served on the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries, and has garnered the support of pro-hunting organizations like the Safari Club and Ducks Unlimited. The Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable backed him for deputy secretary in 2017, though it has declined to take a position on his nomination to Interior’s top job.

He’s spearheaded efforts to loosen parts of the Endangered Species Act.

Bernhardt initiated policy changes to strip protections from an endangered fish called the delta smelt and Chinook salmon, freeing up river water for use by farmers in California’s Westlands Water District, a former client. Ethics specialists and critics charged that his involvement violated ethics rules, but lawyers at the Interior Department upheld Bernhardt’s actions as legitimate, according to the New York Times.

Earlier this month, the department under Bernhardt’s direction loosened protections for the sage grouse across public lands in the West, enabling oil and gas companies to drill in the ground-nesting birds’ habitat. He has also pushed a rule that would require the government to consider economic impact in deciding whether to designate a species as endangered, and blocked a Fish and Wildlife Service report detailing the effects of three common pesticides on 1,200 threatened species.

He supported former secretary Ryan Zinke in shrinking national monuments, opening millions of acres of land and water to mineral extraction.

Although President Trump and Secretary Zinke received much of the press when the government announced in 2017 that it would shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bernhardt played a major role in enacting the changes. “Certainly Zinke’s calling the shots at the department. But when it comes to the detailed policies, his deputy secretary is the one doing that detailed work,” Western Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma told E&E News last November.

He supports oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In a speech to Alaskans in March 2018, Bernhardt said that he planned to expedite the process to begin oil development in the area, according to Arctic Today. He has also imposed limits on environmental impact statements related to the project. The 19-million-acre refuge has been protected since 1960 and is an important polar bear habitat, as well as home to the Inupiat and Gwich’in.

He supported keeping the National Parks open during the government shutdown.

In January, Bernhardt diverted entrance fees to expand operations in high-traffic parks during the 35-day shutdown. Entrance fees are typically allocated to visitor services, not basic operation, and Democrats and conservation groups accused Bernhardt of violating appropriations laws. A number of parks later closed popular areas due to waste build-up and environmental impact. 

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