Utah lawmakers cheer as Senate confirms controversial Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, former oil and gas lobbyist

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington • The Senate on Thursday confirmed David Bernhardt as the new secretary of the Interior Department, handing him the top role in overseeing America’s public lands — including vast stretches in Utah — even as environmentalists charge that he is too beholden to the oil and gas industry he previously called a client.

Bernhardt, who has been serving as acting secretary since the resignation of scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke, will officially take over the department that manages more than a half billion acres of federal land, including national parks, and natural resources onshore and off.

The Senate voted 56-41 to confirm Bernhardt, who previously served as deputy secretary under Zinke. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both Utah Republicans, supported Bernhardt.

Romney, who met with the nominee before the vote, said Bernhardt sees a need for greater state and local involvement in public lands decisions.

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

Environmental advocates agree that Bernhardt has a solid understanding, though they argue it comes from a lengthy career representing the oil and gas industry and that the fox has now been hired to guard the public’s chicken coop.

“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.”

Bernhardt has worked off and on at the Interior Department during his career, including a stint as solicitor general during George W. Bush’s presidency. He’s also lobbied for oil and gas companies that are now seeking Interior’s blessing for more mineral extraction.

The new secretary has so many potential conflicts, he carries an index card of his former clients to avoid any issues, The Washington Post reported.

His confirmation vote Thursday was the closest ever for an Interior secretary, with nearly all Democrats opposing the nominee, who has said he doesn’t plan to recuse himself from issues pertaining to his former clients.

“By refusing to recuse himself, Bernhardt has shown a potential willingness [to] put his former clients’ needs before the public good,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.

Bernhardt, as deputy secretary, played a key role in reviewing national monument designations during the past 20 years, which led to President Donald Trump shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by 2 million acres.

The new secretary already faces a request to appear before the House Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has questioned the legality of Trump slashing the southern Utah monuments’ boundaries.

On the other side, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on that committee, lavished praise on Bernhardt and said he will be able to restore order at the Interior Department.

“After decades of mismanagement and regulatory abuse, the Department of the Interior and the communities impacted by its decisions will greatly benefit with David Bernhardt at the top,” Bishop said. “He is uniquely qualified to lead the department and continue important regulatory reforms to improve land management, limit prior executive abuse, expand conservation, and advance greater public access to our public lands.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Bernhardt is the right leader at the right time.

“He has what it takes to lead this department — coming from the West," Murkowski said. “He understands our public lands, has more experience at the department than all but one of his predecessors, and has extensive knowledge of the issues that will come before him.”

Still, critics warn that Bernhardt’s litany of potential conflicts will raise questions about every action the Interior Department takes.

“Today, the Senate voted to put a former oil industry lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress and a former environmental adviser to President Barack Obama.

“As the most conflicted nominee of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, David Bernhardt is a far cry from the leader the Interior Department needs to break free of the culture of corruption and political favoritism that have come to define it,” Goldfuss added. “Now, it is even more critical for Congress to fulfill its oversight of the department when it comes to breaches of scientific integrity, ethics, and public trust.”

Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger charged that Bernhardt brings with him more scandals than those that brought down Zinke, who faced multiple ethics probes, some of which he was cleared in and others that are still pending.

“Rushing to move forward with Bernhardt’s nomination without clarification on his numerous ethical lapses and investigative requests is not only a disservice to the American people, but it also means that Interior will again be led by a secretary shrouded in scandal,” Saeger said. “Make no mistake: A vote to confirm David Bernhardt for Interior secretary was a vote against our American birthright and the viability of our public lands for future generations.”