Energy & Environment

Trump’s deputy Interior pick is a threat to the environment


Perhaps the biggest takeaway from my 37 years at the National Park Service was an understanding of the necessity for a balanced approach to managing public lands, where wildlife protections, clean waterways and appropriate energy development work in concert; an approach that respects the country’s love of our great outdoors and recognizes the importance of preserving the journey through cultural sites that represent all Americans.

That is why I am unequivocally opposed to the nomination of David Bernhardt for the position of Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

{mosads} Although Bernhardt has led the natural resources department at a major law firm and was the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) chief legal counsel during the George W. Bush administration, his experience is decidedly one-sided. He has represented a plethora of oil and gas and mining entities including Noble Energy Company LLC, Statoil Gulf Services LLC, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, NRG Energy Inc., Cobalt International Energy, Rosemont Copper Company and more — relationships of which would conflict with the duties of DOI’s number two position. 


He has also apparently represented a number of water and wildlife conservation organizations including the Safari Club International Foundation, Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, Westlands Water District, and Cadiz Inc., which also present serious conflicts of interest.

However, if he has fought for conservation values and opposed energy interests, it isn’t on his law firm’s bio page, or on his list of accomplishments as the DOI Solicitor. 

Bernhardt honorably promises to recuse himself for a one-year period from any matters involving these companies and organizations, should he be confirmed. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that his experience and legal positions are far too skewed to do the job with any kind of balanced decision-making. It appears that in every case, Bernhardt has represented and/or lobbied for oil and gas, mining, water extraction and other similar clients. 

For example, we see that he has been a major force for Cadiz, Inc., a company aiming to tap into an aquifer underneath the extremely arid Mojave Desert to pipe drinking water to southern California — a project that could cause severe damage to nearby Mojave National Preserve.

He is representing Rosemont Copper, which is seeking to develop a large copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona. The start of this open-pit mine threatens to pollute the air and nearby water supplies with toxic metals, in a region that economically depends on outdoor recreation and tourism.

As a top DOI official in the Bush administration, he led the charge for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He prepared testimony for Congress in 2001 on Arctic drilling that ignored cautions issued by government scientists and instead used data from reports funded by BP.

Of course, Bernhardt is entitled to his leanings and his sense of what’s important, and to work with and for those who are like-minded. But when a man chooses to embed himself so thoroughly for decades with a particular segment, in this case predominately energy interests, how can he suddenly change his views and decision-making to fairly manage our federal lands and natural resources? How does he “magically” become equally interested in land conservation, wildlife protection and the sustainability of finite water supplies?

I submit that it is virtually impossible, no matter what Bernhardt promises. Altering entrenched behavior patterns takes time. We all know that. And Mr. Bernhardt has not at all promised to change or broaden his outlook on what to do with our public lands and natural resources. He has only promised to stay away from the affairs of a certain number of organizations and to do that for only one year.

The list of conflicts for Mr. Bernhardt is far too long and goes back for too many decades, making the prognosis dismal for his providing America with the fair and balanced approach needed at DOI. Surely, President Trump can come up with a more suitable nominee, someone who doesn’t immediately need to untangle ties with special interest groups, someone who can far better uphold the diverse interests of a diverse America.  


Mark Butler (@MarkButler03) is the former superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, retired from the National Park Service in 2014 after more than 37 years of public service. He now owns a consulting firm and works on environment, energy and land use issues throughout the American West.

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

Tags David Bernhardt Department of Interior Energy Environment Mark Butler Natural gas oil
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