Senators Confirm Ex-Lobbyist Bernhardt as Interior Secretary

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department on March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate on Thursday confirmed a former lobbyist who represented oil, gas and other energy companies to lead the Department of the Interior.

David Bernhardt, who was confirmed in a 56-41 vote, has served as the acting head of the agency since January, when scandal-plagued former leader Ryan Zinke resigned. Trump announced in February he would be nominating Bernhardt, who previously worked as deputy secretary of the agency, to replace Zinke.

Bernhardt also worked at the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration and joined the Washington, D.C., lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck after leaving government.

A large portion of Bernhardt’s work at the firm was for energy companies, leaving him with a list of clients long enough that he reportedly carried a laminated card at the Interior Department that included the companies he had recused himself from dealing with.

This led Democrats to accuse Bernhardt of being too close to the energy industry to lead the agency tasked with managing federal lands and natural resources.  

At his nomination hearing, Bernhardt faced questions about a New York Times report from March saying he led the effort to tamp down an agency report finding three types of pesticide threaten more than 1,000 protected species.

Bernhardt told senators in March that the Times story was “not even close to the actual story.” He said the agency report did not do enough to deal with the legal issues involved in the determination and that career attorneys at the department agreed with his evaluation.

Earlier this week, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a letter asking federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., to look into whether Bernhardt continued lobbying for a California agricultural water district after he withdrew his lobbying registration following the 2016 presidential election.

The request mirrors another that government watchdog Campaign for Accountability made to prosecutors in July 2017 that provided emails showing Bernhardt weighing in on draft documents for the water district after he had given up his lobbying status.

Democrats also faulted Bernhardt for the Trump Interior Department’s moves to expand offshore drilling projects, saying he would continue along the path Zinke charted.

“We must stand up for the generations yet to come that cannot yet speak to protect our public lands and our oceans,” Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Thursday.

Republicans defended Bernhardt, calling him a serious official who has broad experience working at the agency and on land-use issues, making him well-qualified to take over the department after Zinke’s departure.

“He understands how federal land management decisions affect our local communities,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Wednesday. “He’s seen how federal policies impact people’s access to and use of public land and he also recognizes the need to balance conservation and opportunities for economic development. I think that David Bernhardt has really proven his ability to lead the department.”

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