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) PingreeOvernight 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 Congress pumps brakes on Interior push to relocate Bureau of Land Management 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 ColemanAllegations of bed bugs at Trump's Doral resort swarm Twitter A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal Democrats seize on viral Sharpie hashtags to mock Trump map edit 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 ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics 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 LawrenceHouse Democrat walks back remark favoring censure over impeachment Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures 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 vow court victories won't slow impeachment timeline Most US birds are facing extinction unless we take action Pelosi: Trump tweets on Yovanovitch show his 'insecurity as an imposter' 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 TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE's White House and offered increases to the Department of Interior and other agencies.

Subcommittee chair Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumHouse approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention Overnight Energy: Mark Ruffalo pushes Congress on 'forever chemicals' | Lawmakers spar over actor's testimony | House Dems unveil renewable energy tax plan | Funding for conservation program passes Senate hurdle MORE (D-Minn.) said the Democratic-led House panel would likely reject what she called the “unrealistic funding levels in the Trump budget.”