Interior chief dismisses climate concerns in first Natural Resources hearing: 'I haven't lost any sleep over it'

Interior chief dismisses climate concerns in first Natural Resources hearing: 'I haven't lost any sleep over it'
© Greg Nash

Democratic House lawmakers on Wednesday pressured Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to commit to considering climate change in all future agency decisions, but the former energy lobbyist wouldn’t take the bait.

“What’s the number for how concerned you are about us hitting 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide?” Rep. Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightOvernight Energy: Coal industry seeks fee rollbacks amid coronavirus | Ex-lawyer for trophy hunting group joins Trump agency | EPA sued over reapproval of Roundup chemical Coal industry asks for financially beneficial rollbacks amid coronavirus House Democrats jam GOP with coronavirus bill MORE (D-Pa.) asked Bernhardt regarding a recent study that found carbon dioxide levels are the highest in human history.

“I haven’t lost any sleep over it,” Bernhardt responded.

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Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee grilled the newly appointed Interior Secretary over his thoughts on climate change and how the agency, which oversees drilling on national lands, should consider climate impacts as it drafts its policies.

“You have the discretion to issue oil and gas leases on federal lands. There are certain laws that require the department to take climate change into account when it's managing its land. And so Interior would have the ability to make choices that would be consistent with those goals,” Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteHouse Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Trump names Pence to lead coronavirus response MORE (D-Colo.) told Bernhardt at the hearing.

Bernhardt pushed back on insinuations that environmental laws bound him to ease off President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE’s energy independence agenda, which includes expanding oil and gas leasing on public lands.

Emissions from drilling on public lands make up nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S, according to a federal report released last November.

“I think if you all have a view on climate change that says don’t develop energy on federal lands that’s fine. You have to go through a process of codifying it and providing that direction. And if you provide it, I’ll faithfully execute it,” Bernhardt told the lawmakers.

“Just to say from today forward, David Bernhardt says, ‘No development on public lands,’ I do not have that authority.”

Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) challenged Bernhardt’s claim that the Interior chief didn’t have enough authority to make decisions on global warming without a congressional bill.

“You claim that Congress hasn’t given you enough direction to address climate change,” Levin said. “What type of direction would you want Congress to give you to make it clearer?"

Bernhardt said he wasn’t given specific direction to stop drilling.

“Whatever you think you can do to stop it. If that’s what you want to do, go for it. But that should happen in this body. That’s not something the Department of Interior does with a magic wand,” he said, shrugging off the obligation.

Democratic lawmakers challenged Bernhardt on a range of issues during the committee hearing, his first as Interior head. Questions revolved around reports that he signed off on policy decisions that ultimately benefited various former lobbying clients of his and that he’s been stonewalling providing members with requested internal documents.

Rep. Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalHouse Democrats jam GOP with coronavirus bill Federal lawmakers finally have a real plan to fight plastic pollution — will they step up to the plate? Now is our chance to turn the tide on ocean plastic pollution MORE (D-Calif.) pointed to a slide of a page of computer code sent to lawmakers among the batches of documents they requested from Interior.

“I call this the gibberish slide. I have no idea what this says, but you sent it on,” Lowenthal said.

Liberal lawmakers on the committee challenged that while Interior had provided large quantities of documents, they had not provided information specific enough to their requests, which they labeled a clear attempt to obfuscate.

“There is quantitative response to the request and qualitative response to the request… The qualitative response is our point. While we have reams of paper, we don’t have quality content,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), chairman of the committee.

Grijalva had previously been vocal about his frustration with Interior’s lack of response to requests for documents. The testiness between the Interior Department and his committee nearly exploded into a standoff two weeks ago when Bernhardt wouldn't commit to a date to testify before it.

Bernhardt later agreed after Grijalva promised to first hold a one-on-one meeting with him.

“The committee needs to know what kind of relationship we're going to have with you as an equal branch of government from now on,” Grijalva asked Bernhardt at the hearing.

“I’d like to hear from you if you feel the same way the President does in terms of committee oversight. Can we expect to have a healthy relationship with the Interior Department?”

Bernhardt acknowledged there was frustration, and said maybe they could find a way to sit down again and discuss expectations further.