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A brief guide to David Bernhardt, Ryan Zinke’s replacement at the Interior Department

Three things to know about the former oil lobbyist who’s just been confirmed as the new Secretary of the Interior.

David Bernhardt is taking over the Department of the Interior from outgoing Secretary Ryan Zinke.
David Bernhardt is taking over the Department of the Interior from outgoing Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Senate on Thursday afternoon voted to confirm David Bernhardt to lead the Department of the Interior.

Bernhardt has been serving as acting secretary since January after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned late last year. He was nominated to be the permanent secretary in February.

This handover of power at Interior has been striking in its similarity to the change in leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency last year, where an experienced Washington insider replaced a high-profile outsider.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who made a name for himself as Oklahoma’s attorney general by suing the EPA 14 times before taking office, resigned in July after ethics complaints and investigations into his ostentatious conduct became too much for the White House to bear. He was replaced by his deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer who’d previously worked at the EPA. Acting Administrator Wheeler has kept a much lower profile than Pruitt while steadily advancing Trump’s agenda.

Similarly, Zinke resigned from his post after mounting ethics complaints led the Justice Department to consider a criminal investigation into his conduct. Bernhardt, his replacement, is a former industry lobbyist and has previously worked at the Interior Department. And like Wheeler, Bernhardt has now been confirmed to take over his department in a permanent capacity.

Here are three key things to know about the new boss at Interior.

Bernhardt has many potential conflicts of interest from his time as a fossil fuel lobbyist

Bernhardt, 49, began his career working as a staffer for then-Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO) before joining a lobbying firm. He then worked as an attorney for Interior under the George W. Bush administration. But after leaving government, he went back to lobbying, taking over the natural resources practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

A 2014 financial disclosure document shows that Bernhardt has represented a number of clients that have business before the Interior Department, including oil companies like Statoil Gulf Services, Taylor Energy, and Cobalt International Energy.

According to the Washington Post, Bernhardt carries a card with him to keep track of his potential conflicts of interest. He’s even had to cancel a speech to the Colorado River Water Conservation District due to ethics concerns about his previous work lobbying for other water districts.

As an agency, the Interior Department has a pretty broad scope. It’s in charge of mineral rights on federal lands, environmental stewardship, promoting outdoor recreation, and upholding treaty obligations with Native Americans.

So there are many different interests impacted by the department’s policies and a lot of groups vying for the agency’s favor. Chief among them are fossil fuel companies who want to extract coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands.

Bernhardt is likely to keep pursuing Zinke’s agenda

The Trump administration aggressively pushed for more fossil fuel development across the United States by opening up new lands to drilling and mining, attempting to bail out money-losing coal power plants, and dialing back environmental regulations that stand in the way.

At Interior, Zinke oversaw the largest rollback of federal land protections in US history and opened up nearly all US coastal waters to offshore drilling. While Bernhardt may not get an opportunity to pull off anything so grand, he’s likely to continue these pro-fossil fuel policies.

As a deputy secretary, Bernhardt led reviews of key environmental regulations like the Endangered Species Act to make energy development easier on federal land. He also signed a secretarial order that undid agency rules for reducing the environmental impacts of activities on federal lands. This included best practices for mitigating climate change. Bernhardt has also made it harder to incorporate the latest science to guide Interior’s policies.

David Bernhardt, left, joins President Trump at a cabinet meeting on January 2, 2019.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, left, joins President Trump at a Cabinet meeting on January 2, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Though Bernhardt hasn’t denied the role of human activity in climate change, like Trump, he has framed it as a contest between the economy and the environment. “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 and then look at the legal rubric and say, how do we, how do we apply the law there?” he said during his confirmation hearing.

Democrats in the House are keeping a close eye on him

With a fresh House majority, congressional Democrats say they will scrutinize Bernhardt’s ties to the oil and gas industry.

“His years of lobbying on behalf of clients who stand to profit from Interior policy decisions are cause for serious concern,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight duties for the Interior Department, in a statement to Earther in December.

“We intend to continue conducting vigorous oversight of how Interior political appointees arrive at major policy decisions, who they consult, who they ignore, and who stands to benefit financially. Deputy Secretary Bernhardt should be prepared to answer those questions early in the new Congress.”