David Bernhardt, a former energy and oil lobbyist, was confirmed as Interior Secretary on Thursday by a vote of 56-41. Bernhardt has served as deputy secretary since 2017 and acting secretary since the beginning of 2019, following the resignation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Trump nominee and anti-conservationist plagued by ethical scandals during the two years he held the position.
Many Democratic senators objected to Bernhardt’s confirmation because of his connections to oil and agribusiness, and the regulatory rollbacks he’s already accomplished as acting secretary. Some said that Bernhardt’s lobbyist past and policies will impede the action crucial to preventing further climate disaster.
“I think you are so conflicted that if you get confirmed you’re going to have one of two choices,” Ron Wyden (D-OR) said to Bernhardt at his March 28 confirmation hearing. “One, you’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day. Or two, you’re going to be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients, regularly violating your ethics pledge.”
Following the hearing, a group of 15 Democratic senators that included Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced their intention to vote against Bernhardt’s confirmation, saying “A vote for Bernhardt is a vote for offshore drilling.”
Greenpeace and Clean Water Action both have urged the Senate to oppose Bernhardt’s confirmation. In a letter pleading with the Senate to not confirm Bernhardt, they wrote: “Mr. Bernhardt is laden with conflicts of interest that raise serious questions about his ability to act in the public interest.”
Environmental advocates from both organizations attended the March 28 hearing, and at least one wore a swamp monster mask for the length of the hearing.
The Center For Investigative Reporting’s Reveal published audio of the head of the Independent Petroleum Association of America—a former client of Bernhardt—saying that it “worked out well that Bernhardt became deputy secretary.” An analysis by watchdog group Documented showed that former lobbying clients of Bernhardt had at least 70 meetings with the Department of the Interior.
The Real News Network’s Dimitri Lascaris spoke with Jennifer Kunze, an organizer with Clean Water Action, to discuss the extent of Bernhardt’s conflict of interest.
“He had previously worked to serve private industries’ interests over the interests of public health and the environment and climate,” Kunze said. “And he’s going to continue those priorities forward if he is confirmed as secretary of the interior. He will be the most conflicted of all of Trump’s 31 cabinet nominees, and that’s saying a lot. He’s a former fossil fuel lobbyist who has consistently shown as acting secretary where his priorities are.”
Kunze said she agrees with Jesse Coleman of Documented’s assertion on TRNN that Bernhardt could be even worse for environmental regulation than previous Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who once told representatives from the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association “our government should work for you.” And Bernhardt has already been assisting his former corporate interest clients at the expense of the public interest.
“He’s continuously been advocating for the continued use of pesticides that are proven to be dangerous, both in his prior positions and as acting secretary,” Kunze said. “He has recently suppressed a report by his agency’s own scientists that detailed how significantly dangerous certain pesticides are to human life, to children, and to over 1,200 endangered species.”
And when federal employees were furloughed at the end of 2018, the Interior Department still issued 71 offshore drilling permits, most for his former clients: “The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management is expected to release new offshore drilling plans soon that could open up as much as 90 percent of the U.S. coast for drilling.”
Kunze added that Bernhardt is further evidence Trump has not “drained the swamp.”
“[The Trump administration] has created a swamp and it has deepened the swamp,” Kunze said. “Even among the many cabinet officials in Trump’s administration who were doing harm to the environment and to climate and to public health, Bernhardt is an outstanding example of that. And if confirmed as secretary of the interior, he’ll continue doing real harm to America’s environment and public health and to the climate.”