President Donald Trump on Monday announced he will nominate David Bernhardt as the 53rd secretary of the Department of the Interior.
Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist with a slew of potential conflicts of interests, has led the agency in an acting role since scandal-plagued agency chief Ryan Zinke resigned early last month.
“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post.
Trump’s nomination comes after weeks of speculation about who would be selected as Zinke’s permanent replacement. Several other names surfaced as contenders for the role, including Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), former Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and former Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). The post requires Senate confirmation.
In a brief statement posted to Twitter, Bernhardt said it’s “a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a Department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our President.”
Bernhardt, a Colorado native, has served as the deputy secretary of the Interior Department since August 2017. He played a key role in many regulatory rollbacks during Zinke’s tenure, including efforts to dismantle Obama-era protections for the greater sage grouse and to revise the Endangered Species Act, one of America’s bedrock conservation laws. Dozens of conservation groups signed a letter opposing his nomination to the deputy secretary role, citing his ties to industry and labeling him “a walking conflict of interest.” Those groups echoed that message following Monday’s announcement.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based advocacy group, called the nomination “an affront to America’s parks and public lands.”
“If a walking conflict of interest like David Bernhardt gets confirmed, oversight and true transparency will be more important than ever,” she said in a statement.
Bernhardt is among several top Cabinet officials tasked with regulating the very industries they previously worked for.
Prior to his current stint at Interior, Bernhardt worked for eight years at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he lobbied on behalf of oil, gas, mining and agricultural interests. He also previously served as a top Interior official under former President George W. Bush, leading a failed attempt to open Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development ― now a priority of the Trump administration as it pushes its “energy dominance” agenda.
Bernhardt is among several Interior Department officials who have committed seemingly clear violations of Trump’s ethics pledge. As Interior’s deputy secretary, Bernhardt met on several occasions with lobbyists for MGM Resorts International, the casino-resort giant that his longtime former employer represents. The ethics agreement he signed last year bars him from participating in matters involving Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
He has so many potential conflicts, in fact, that he carries around a list of former clients he is barred from participating in decisions about, The Washington Post reported in November.
Despite his own ethical woes, Bernhardt on Friday sent a memo to the agency’s 70,000 staff members touting his efforts to improve the “ethical culture” at the agency.
“While serving as Deputy Secretary, I personally devoted a tremendous amount of effort to transforming and enhancing the ethics infrastructure throughout our organization,” he wrote. “It has been badly neglected for far too long.”
During the recent partial government shutdown, Bernhardt came under fire for allowing the National Park Service to tap into park entrance fees to keep sites open and combat mounting trash and sanitation issues. He also faced accusations from House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) and other Democrats that he gave the fossil fuel industry a free pass during the shutdown, prioritizing his industry allies over all else. As an estimated 800,000 federal workers went without paychecks, the Interior Department plowed ahead with its “energy dominance” agenda, approving oil and gas leases and amending the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s shutdown contingency plan to bring back dozens of furloughed employees to continue work on offshore drilling activities.
Grijalva called Bernhardt’s nomination “a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration.”
“We intend to conduct vigorous oversight of Mr. Bernhardt’s industry ties and how they may influence his policy decisions,” Grijalva said in a statement. “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.”