Facing Democratic resistance, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt promotes oil and gas drilling

(Brian Melley | AP file) This June 12, 2017 photo shows pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California's Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. The federal government wants to reopen over 1.7 million acres (690,000 hectacres) in California to oil and gas drilling that includes fracking on land that has been off-limits since environmentalists sued in 2013. The Bureau of Land Management issued final plans Thursday, May 9, 2019 for oil and gas leases on 800,000 acres of federal land mainly between the Central Coast and Central Valley.

Washington • The Trump administration will calculate the climate effects of its oil, gas and coal leasing decisions, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview Wednesday, but will not make those impacts the key factor in its final decisions.

Bernhardt, who took office a month ago, said he was committed to carrying out President Donald Trump’s plans to expand fossil-fuel production on public lands. In March, a federal judge ruled that the federal government illegally approved two gas drilling plans in western Colorado; on Monday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management failed to account for the effect of fracking as many as 4,000 oil and gas wells in New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region.

Bernhardt, who noted that the leases in both decisions had been issued under the Obama administration, said he was confident the department could address these concerns.

"So that says to me that we have to do a better job in articulating certain things to the courts," he said during a wide-ranging conversation in his office. "What I hope is, as an organization we learn from any error we make."

Congressional Democrats have been pressing Bernhardt, who appeared before a House spending panel Tuesday and will testify before the House Natural Resources Committee next week, to factor climate change into the department's decisions about energy development on public lands and in federal waters.

But he emphasized that Interior was not legally obligated to curb the nation's carbon output, even if it had to assess the environmental effects of its leasing programs.

"The law requires us to analyze those things," he said, referring to the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from a leasing decision. "It doesn't say if there is an additional contribution, you should not go forward at all."

The Trump administration has placed a hold on one of its most ambitious leasing proposals, a five-year plan for offshore drilling, after a federal judge ruled in March that the president's order revoking a sweeping ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans was illegal. Bernhardt said the White House would make the ultimate decision on whether to appeal, and that he could not predict when the offshore leasing plan would be finalized.

Bernhardt is prepared to forge ahead on other deregulation efforts. He said that he expected to get a briefing on this week's U.N. scientific report that an eighth of the world's plants and animals are at risk of extinction, but added that Interior and the Commerce Department still planned to finalize an overhaul of endangered species regulations this year.

"We didn't start doing them to not do them," he said.

As he pursues the administration's agenda, Bernhardt is likely to encounter resistance on Capitol Hill. In a phone interview Wednesday, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, said that any spending bill passing the House this year would impose certain requirements on Interior.

"We will not be funding irreparable harm to the environment," McCollum said. "Any bill we pass will include requirements for the Department of Interior to use real science, to use best practices, to protect the environment and to not to go to industry and ask them what they want, and what's the bare minimum."

In contrast to his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, who insulted one of the top Democrats overseeing Interior on Twitter, Bernhardt has made an effort to contact key lawmakers in recent weeks. He met privately on Tuesday with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and said he plans to meet with members of both parties in the months to come.

"You know, my own view is that everyone who is engaged in public service is trying to serve the public interest in the best way that they can," he said.

Bernhardt, who started running the department in January but did not move into the secretary's office until he was sworn in April 11, has made several changes to its decor. A stuffed polar bear stands as a sentry outside, and the skull of a moose Bernhardt shot in Alaska's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve sits atop the fireplace.

“I’m not somebody who would put somebody else’s stuff up,” Bernhardt said, noting that he and a friend had to carry the moose’s entire body themselves to ship it out on a small plane. “His neck meat alone was 135 pounds.”