Trump Interior chief says climate change response falls on Congress

Trump Interior chief says climate change response falls on Congress
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt defended his position on climate change and record on ethics while speaking before lawmakers Tuesday to discuss his agency's proposed budget.

In his first hearing since being sworn in as secretary, the Trump administration official frequently put the onus on lawmakers for responding to global warming. He said that while he believes in climate change, Congress has not directed him to respond to it.

“Isn’t this your job?” Bernhardt asked Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeDemocrats spend big to put Senate in play Overnight Energy: EPA chief touts benefits of deregulation for environment | Trump officials weaken fish protections Interior chief once lobbied against | USDA watchdog to probe handling of climate reports USDA's internal watchdog to probe allegedly buried climate change reports MORE (D-Maine) when pushed to share his views on climate change during a subcommittee hearing for the House Appropriations Committee. “You’re a political leader right now that we are counting on.”

Bernhardt told the committee that there are more than 600 instances in current laws where the secretary is directed that he or she “shall” do something.

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“You know what there’s not – is a ‘shall’ for ‘I shall manage the land to stop climate change’ or something similar to that,” he said.

Bernhardt also discussed development of fossil fuels on public lands, saying he would not stop oil and gas development – including offshore drilling – without direction from Congress.

The Trump Cabinet official also clarified that his department will finish its five-year drilling plan, despite reports that it was indefinitely sidelined.

Bernhardt repeatedly emphasized that concerns from states would be paramount in making a determination at the federal level.

“I’m not aware of a single lease that was ever developed over the opposition of a state,” he said.

But Rep. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanHouse members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes Trump orders agencies to cut regulations that 'inhibit economic recovery' Federal employees push for COVID-19 protections in 'dangerous' workplaces MORE (D-N.J.) questioned why Interior was continuing to process permits for seismic exploration of underwater oil reserves up and down the Atlantic Coast, particularly given the risks the process poses to marine life.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of information. If we can do it properly and it can be done responsibly, the data itself is not something we should be afraid of,” he said.

Some of the hearings most heated exchanges came in response to questions over Bernhardt’s ethics records.

Many of the ethics investigations from Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeKilling bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens on National Park Service lands in Alaska is wrong Overnight Energy: Biden campaign says he would revoke Keystone XL permit | EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement | Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings Ex-Interior chief rips attacks, says being a billionaire 'can't be a prerequisite' for public office MORE, are still underway, and Bernhardt himself is being investigated along with six other Interior staffers.

Democrats have requested interviews with a number of Interior officials, and Rep. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceFormer Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says public health threat of loneliness compounded by COVID-19; Trump says task force will 'evolve' Black Caucus moves to front and center in COVID fight House reverses, but Senate to return despite COVID threat MORE (D-Mich.) said Bernhardt has refused to schedule those interviews, sending documents instead. 

“We as Congress asked them to come and last I check you don’t determine how we get our information,” Lawrence said.

Democrats have threatened to block the salaries of Interior officials and others who refuse to testify before Congress.

Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyDemocrats call for probe into ouster of State Dept. watchdog Bipartisan lawmakers call for global 'wet markets' ban amid coronavirus crisis EPA defends suspension of pollution monitoring in letter to Congress MORE (D-Ill.) said even by Chicago standards, “it’s pretty impressive four days into your tenure the inspector general opens an investigation into your ‘wide assortment of questionable conduct on your part.’”

Quigley repeatedly accused Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who was confirmed to the administration last month, of acting in the interests of his former lobbying clients. Bernhardt responded that he was working for American interests.

Legislators have long questioned Bernhardt's industry ties given his background as a lobbyist, and Democrats have pushed for more details about how top staff keeps track of Bernhardt's calendar and meetings with industry representatives.

Bernhardt appeared Tuesday to discuss the Trump administration's budget for the Department of the Interior, which calls for a 14 percent cut to the agency – roughly $2 billion less than last year.

Congress has consistently rejected the budget cuts proposed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE's White House and offered increases to the Department of Interior and other agencies.

Subcommittee chair Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumPelosi: George Floyd death is 'a crime' Four Minneapolis officers involved in death of unarmed black man fired Administration rolls back pollution standards amid a global pandemic MORE (D-Minn.) said the Democratic-led House panel would likely reject what she called the “unrealistic funding levels in the Trump budget.”