President Trump on Monday announced that he’ll nominate David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and George W. Bush administration official, to become the next Interior secretary.
If confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt will take the reins of the agency that manages 70,000 employees and 500 million acres of federal land — about one-fifth of the land in the United States — including 50 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Nevada. He’ll also be tasked with carrying out some of the Trump administration’s most controversial energy and environmental policies.
Bernhardt, 49, has been acting secretary of the department since January. Trump’s first Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, announced his resignation late last year as he faced a flurry of ethics investigations. Trump said he would name a nominee in mid-December, but that nomination lagged until this week.
Former Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller was the subject of much early speculation as a possible replacement for Zinke. However, that speculation faded, and the Current reported Jan. 16 that Heller was all but out of the running, not least because he failed to publicly support Trump during the 2016 campaign.
The president wrote on Twitter Monday, “I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”
I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2019
Bernhardt, a Colorado native, has been deputy secretary of Interior since July 2017. Prior to that, he was a lawyer and lobbyist in the Denver office of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. There, he fought protections for endangered salmon on behalf of California’s Westlands Water District, Bloomberg reported. He also lobbied for Hudbay Minerals, the owner of the proposed Rosemont copper mine near Tucson, Ariz.
His lobbying history has left him with so many potential conflicts of interest that he carries a small card listing them all, the Washington Post reported.
Bernhardt’s history as an industry lobbyist “raises serious questions about his commitment to honoring the mission of the Department of Interior to manage the natural resources and cultural heritage of America, as well as protect and preserve Nevada’s public lands,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said in a statement Monday. “I have serious reservations about his nomination.”
This is Bernhardt’s second stint at Interior. During the George W. Bush administration, he was an aide to Secretary Gale Norton before becoming the department’s top attorney.
He is loathed by many environmentalists and conservation groups, who see him as the mastermind behind the administration’s policies to roll back environmental rules and open up public lands to oil and gas drilling.
“David Bernhardt has been the tip of the spear in that very oil-friendly approach,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was deputy chief of staff at Interior during the Obama administration. “His nomination will be a continuation of those policies.”
Lee-Ashley warned of “very real impacts” to some of the most valued public lands in the country, particularly in western states. He pointed to concerns that the department under Bernhardt could move toward mining in the Grand Canyon, “rush ahead” with oil and gas leases in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and push for leases on massive tracts of Nevada lands.
Bernhardt is credited with advancing policies to speed up approval for drilling projects and ease Endangered Species Act protections since becoming the No. 2 official at Interior.
On climate change, Bernhardt told lawmakers “we take the science as we find it, whatever it is.” But he said there’s disagreement about what to do about that science. “My task will be to take the science as we find it, put it in the paradigm of the Administration’s policy perspective, which is, ‘We are not going to sacrifice jobs for this,’” he said at his 2017 confirmation hearing.
Bernhardt will face pushback from outside groups who oppose his confirmation, but he’s likely to win support from the Senate, where Republicans hold a comfortable majority. Bernhardt was confirmed by a 53-43 vote in 2017.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was among the four Democrats who broke party lines to support Bernhardt’s confirmation as deputy secretary.
Lee-Ashley said Bernhardt’s next confirmation vote could hinge on “how communities respond — western communities in particular.”
He said there will be pressure on Republican senators like Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who’s up for re-election in 2020. “Folks like Sen. Gardner will have to look at whether David Bernhardt really reflects the priorities of his state,” Lee-Ashley said.
Conservatives were pleased to see Bernhardt’s formal nomination, which some have been expecting since Zinke’s departure.
“He’s a reformer,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who served on Trump’s presidential transition team. Ebell and other conservatives recently sent a letter to the White House, endorsing Bernhardt for the job.
“He’s done an outstanding job as deputy secretary, particularly in implementing the president’s energy agenda on public lands and offshore areas.”
If he’s confirmed, Bernhardt can expect plenty of scrutiny from newly empowered House Democrats.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Monday that Trump’s decision to put a former lobbyist in charge of regulating his former clients “is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration.”
Grijalva added, “We intend to conduct vigorous oversight of Mr. Bernhardt’s industry ties and how they may influence his policy decisions. This administration has lost the benefit of the doubt, thanks in no small part to Ryan Zinke’s failed tenure at the Interior Department. We expect Mr. Bernhardt to right the ship and will act in his absence if he doesn’t.”