This past week, President Trump put forward Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt as his nominee to head up the Department of the Interior on a permanent basis.
While the move was widely expected, it was still met with intense criticism from progressive groups familiar with Bernhardt’s resume. Under the previous secretary, Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior made a variety of shameful moves that were widely denounced even in the corporate press, including the opening of federally-protected lands throughout the country to oil and gas companies.
While the department was nominally under Zinke’s leadership when these agreements were signed, it was Bernhardt, in his former role as the department’s Deputy Secretary, who orchestrated the fossil fuel expansion deal. While Zinke was forced to resign over abuses of government resources for personal gain, the political right had only praise for his policy decisions.
Bernhardt’s nomination is hardly surprising when looking at his long record of engineering land use and environmental policy to the benefit of fossil fuel companies. Before joining the Trump Administration, Bernhardt was a prominent lobbyist for the energy firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, where he represented clients like Eni Petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy Services, Targa Energy, and Noble Energy.
Aside from a few previous stints at the Department of the Interior (including under George W. Bush), Bernhardt’s career has largely been built on helping fossil fuel interests circumvent environmental policy. Thus far, Bernhardt has recused himself from decisions that have directly involved the companies with which he worked, but if he is confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt’s ability to set the agenda for the entirety of the department would make such actions official policy.
Reacting to rumors of Trump’s imminent nomination of Bernhardt, Mike Sommers, president of oil industry interest group the American Petroleum Institute said: “We have always been supportive of Acting Secretary Bernhardt. We supported his nomination and would support him if the president decides to nominate him to be secretary.” Randall Luthi, Sommers counterpart from the offshore drilling industry interest group National Ocean Industries Association, also sang praises of Bernhardt: “[He] possesses an impressive depth of experience at the Department and knowledge of Interior issues. His selection as secretary will assure that important energy and conservation policies will not miss a beat in the transition.”
It is clear from these responses that the very same corporate groups that the Department of the Interior is tasked with reigning in view Bernhardt’s appointment as a great boon to their agenda. As Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt has already begun to allow irreversible damage to crucial wildlife habitats and lands sacred to indigenous nations. Since his confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt would essentially use the fossil fuel industry’s playbook to set federal policy.
The Department of the Interior is traditionally tasked with responsible stewardship of lands for the greater public interest. Under Bernhardt, the illusion of responsible stewardship would be abandoned in its entirety echoing Trump’s ongoing trend of appointing corporate lackeys to his Cabinet, who work in direct opposition to their department’s purpose.