The Interior Department is about to become a front group for oil and gas
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For months now, most of the country has been understandably glued to the latest developments regarding Russia collusion, the stripping of health care from millions of people in the United States, or simply trying to keep up with the latest scandals from the White House. Meanwhile, in its latest brazen move to give the middle finger to ethical standards, the Trump administration is trying to push through a nominee for deputy secretary at the Interior Department with enough conflicts of interest concerns to make ethics watchdogs short circuit.

David Bernhardt, darling lobbyist of the oil and gas industry who regularly sues the Interior Department on behalf of corporate clients, could be number two in command of protecting public lands and waters.

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Bernhardt’s career proves that his allegiance will remain with his extractive energy clients, not with everyday people. As head of law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s natural resource department, Bernhardt has most likely led most of the firm’s energy and mining and work and a significant chunk of his clients are oil and gas companies.

 

Prior to answering his calling as a super lobbyist, Bernhardt was in charge of legal and ethical compliance at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush. Under his watch, the agency was engulfed in scandals ranging from financial self-dealing, sex and drug scandals, and modifying scientific reports about endangered species to “make the science fit the policy.” He has even sat on boards and worked for groups, including the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and Safari Club International, that oppose the Endangered Species Act and have strong financial ties to the oil and gas industry. 

Trump’s pick for second in command at the agency in charge of public lands and waters is just the latest example in a disturbing trend of appointees leading the very agencies that historically they have opposed, both legally and philosophically. In a rare show of attention for a number two position, Bernhardt has attracted widespread opposition, including from every major newspaper editorial board in California. 

While Bernhardt has said he will recuse himself from matters involving his past work, how can you reverse an entrenched career of going to bat for oil, gas and mining companies?

Furthermore, there are so many dizzying conflicts of interest that Bernhardt would have nothing to work on at the Interior Department. So why nominate him at all? Most immediately, Bernhardt will have a glaring conflict of interest in the management of more than 20 national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah which Secretary Ryan Zinke has suggested shrinking. Bernhardt’s firm sits on the board of the Western Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel front group which has expressed interest in exploiting Bear’s Ears and has been meeting with Zinke.

People in this country deserve regulators who protect them from the very groups and interests that Bernhardt has made a fortune from representing. Trump is determined to leave us in the hands of people who will throw us under the bus for their former corporate clients every single time. Unless you are an executive at a company like Exxon or Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, Bernhardt and Zinke’s Interior Department will likely not care about you or your community.

The defenders of Trump’s horrendous picks for federal agencies often cite the nominee’s “expertise” in a certain issue. Paving the way for oil and gas companies to roll back environmental protections is not “expertise” in land management. These positions should be filled by individuals passionate about working for everyday people in this country, not their former lobbying clients.

At a time when we feel divided, it’s more important than ever to protect what we all share — public lands and waters that we can enjoy now and pass down to collective future generations. 

The decision for lawmakers to vote “no” has never been easier. Every Senator who cares about protecting public lands and public waters for their communities and saving species that could disappear forever should reject David Bernhard’s nomination as deputy secretary of the Interior Department.

Kelly Mitchell is the Climate Campaign director of Greenpeace USA.Since 2006, Mitchell has worked with activists and organizations across the country to confront corporate polluters and transform U.S. energy policy. Follow her on Twitter @kellyemitchell.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.