Trump Taps Former Oil Lobbyist David Bernhardt to Lead Interior

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is nominating David Bernhardt to be Interior secretary, a move that puts a former oil lobbyist on track to take over the Interior Department.

If confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt, the deputy secretary, would succeed Ryan Zinke at the helm of the Interior Department, an $11 billion agency that oversees drilling, grazing and other activities on public lands. Bernhardt has been acting secretary since Zinke left the Trump administration in January amid mounting federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.

Trump announced the nomination on Twitter Monday. The choice echoes Trump’s decision to put a politically savvy lawyer, Andrew Wheeler, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency after the departure of the president’s scandal-plagued first EPA chief, Scott Pruitt.

Like Zinke, Bernhardt is expected to continue charting a pro-energy course at Interior, having already played a leading role in shaping department policies to expand drilling, make sure economics are factored into endangered species decisions and alter the way the government analyzes the environmental consequences of projects.

As a natural resources lawyer, most of Bernhardt’s professional life has been tied to Interior -- either working inside the agency or lobbying it from the outside. After a stint at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt went to work for former President George W. Bush’s Interior Department in 2001, eventually becoming the agency’s top lawyer in 2006.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Bernhardt returned to his old firm, where he worked on behalf of oil companies and developers with business before his former agency. Bernhardt’s client list included affiliates of Noble Energy Inc., a major Gulf of Mexico oil producer; Equinor ASA, the Norwegian company seeking to build a wind farm off the New York coast; and Halliburton Co., the world’s largest oilfield services provider.

Unlike Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who rode a horse to the Interior Department’s offices on his first day on the job and had a secretarial flag hoisted whenever he was inside the agency’s headquarters, Bernhardt, 49, avoids the spotlight. His supporters and critics alike describe him as a smart, hard-working lawyer who strategically and methodically advances his goals, often finding ways to use the bureaucracy to his advantage.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s Democratic leader, delivered a blistering criticism of Trump’s choice on Monday night. “David Bernhardt might be the most ethically-challenged, special-interest-driven nominee the president could have selected for this position – and that’s saying something, considering he would be following former Secretary Ryan Zinke,” Schumer said in a statement. “Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination is a serious threat to our nation’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”

Environmentalists also blasted the nomination.

“Trump has once again nominated a corrupt industry hack to lead a critical federal agency,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager for Friends of the Earth. “Instead of another puppet for corporate polluters, Americans want real leaders who will protect our public lands, natural resources and cultural heritage.”

But the move drew immediate applause from ranchers, cattle producers and oil developers. 

“Bernhardt understands that conservation and enhancement of natural resources can and does occur in conjunction with development of natural resources for energy –- both on and offshore,” said Randall Luthi, head of the National Ocean Industries Association.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that as “a Westerner, Mr. Bernhardt is familiar with Western lands and how, by statute, the Interior Department manages public lands and waters with multiple use policies that balance conservation, recreational opportunities, job-creating economic activities, and safe, responsible energy development.”

Top Priorities

One of Bernhardt’s top priorities at Interior has been revamping the way the U.S. protects vulnerable animals under the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists denounced a Trump proposal championed by Bernhardt to allow economic considerations to factor into wildlife protection decisions under the law. Bernhardt has defended the approach, arguing that the government has too often pursued protections without regard for the potential cost to landowners and businesses.

Bernhardt would be on the front line of Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda. The Interior Department is weighing plans to expand the sale of offshore oil and gas leases in U.S. waters and, under Trump, has sought to propel energy development on public lands too. The department is preparing to sell drilling rights in a 1.6-million-acre piece of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by a law Congress passed in 2017.

Interior Department agencies also play a lead role interacting with Native American tribes, issuing rights for grazing on public lands and considering whether animals should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

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