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) PingreeFederal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Federal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Congress should make Interior's Bernhardt 'manage the land to stop climate change' 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 ColemanOvernight Energy: Interior chief says climate response falls on Congress | Bernhardt insists officials will complete offshore drilling plans | Judge rules EPA must enforce Obama landfill pollution rules Trump Interior chief says climate change response falls on Congress Interior chief says offshore drilling plan not 'indefinitely sidelined' 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 ZinkeHouse Ethics panel reviewing allegations against Grijalva House Ethics panel reviewing allegations against Grijalva Federal watchdog recommends Conway be removed from role for Hatch Act violations 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 LawrenceLee Zeldin responds to Ilhan Omar accusing him of 'bigotry' Lee Zeldin responds to Ilhan Omar accusing him of 'bigotry' Ilhan Omar: Endorsement of Black-Jewish Caucus 'isn't an endorsement of Zeldin's bigotry' 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 QuigleyDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks 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 TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE's White House and offered increases to the Department of Interior and other agencies.

Subcommittee chair Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumHouse Dems call on Trump to cancel plans to speak at July Fourth celebration House Dems call on Trump to cancel plans to speak at July Fourth celebration Mueller puts ball in Democrats' court MORE (D-Minn.) said the Democratic-led House panel would likely reject what she called the “unrealistic funding levels in the Trump budget.”