Senate approves Bernhardt as Interior chief

DOI Secretary David Bernhardt

The U.S. Senate last week confirmed the appointment of David Bernhardt to head the Department of Interior. He had been acting secretary following the resignation of Ryan Zinke, and was confirmed by a 56-42 vote April 11.

Bernhardt, originally from the Western Slope city of Rifle, Colorado, takes the helm amid questions over his accountability. He now lives in Virginia. There has been considerable debate over his track record when it comes to policies and compliance with ethical standards as deputy secretary under Zinke, and then as acting secretary.

While Utah’s Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both Republicans, voted in favor of Bernhardt, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., voted against him. Bennett said in February that he couldn’t support Bernhardt due to his work to revoke Bureau of Land Management methane rules for oil and gas production, to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and to limit input from state and local officials on oil and gas leasing.

Oppositely, Senator Romney told the media, “Based on our discussion and his years of experience managing federal lands, I believe he has a solid understanding of issues affecting Utah and Western states.”

The Republican National Committee said last week that Bennet’s vote marked the first time a U.S. senator from Colorado has opposed an Interior secretary nominee from Colorado. Research by the office of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., indicates six people who live in Colorado or at some point lived in Colorado previously have served as Interior secretary. The most recent are Ken Salazar during the Obama administration and Gale Norton during the George W. Bush administration.

Like Salazar and Norton, Bernhardt is an attorney, reported the Sentinel. He served in several Interior Department positions during the George W. Bush administration, including as solicitor, serving as legal counsel to the department.

Bernhardt also has worked as an attorney and lobbyist for the energy litigation company Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He was a shareholder in the firm, running its natural resources practice, and represented oil and gas, water and other interests. Ethics concerns surrounding his nomination have focused on former clients said to have benefited from Interior Department actions during his leadership, and on whether he has always recused himself where warranted in keeping with ethical guidelines. Bernhardt has maintained he has complied with ethical standards, and says that at the Interior Department he works on behalf of the American people.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that environmental advocates agree Bernhardt has a solid understanding of environmental issues, though they argue it comes from a lengthy career representing the oil and gas industry.

“We are gravely concerned that the Senate has confirmed an oil and gas lobbyist with a troubling record of favoring special interests to be the chief steward of our nation’s public lands, parks and waters,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “David Bernhardt has too often favored special interests at the expense of our shared public resources and the health of our communities. His record and deep conflicts of interest should have made him unfit to be Interior secretary.”

However, in testimony on the Senate floor last week, Gardner said Bernhardt has been the victim of “the Washington, D.C., political smear machine” and the opposition to him isn’t really about things such as ethics and integrity. “It’s about that he has been and will be effective at implementing an agenda that the other side doesn’t agree with because they know he will be effective at protecting our great outdoors and public lands,” Gardner said in a Sentinel story.