WASHINGTON (CN) – With multiple masked swamp creatures in attendance, former oil lobbyist and current acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt faced both praise and condemnation along party lines in his confirmation hearing before a Senate panel Thursday.
As protesters stoically watched the proceedings from behind cartoon-like monster masks, calling attention to what they see as conflicts of interest from Bernhardt’s background, Republican lawmakers largely touted his leadership record.
Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski lauded the relationship between the Interior Department and her home state of Alaska, calling the positive shift a “sea change” from previous years.
Murkowski told Bernhardt he “knows the drill,” echoing her Republican colleagues in touting his extensive knowledge of the law and experience in the field. Others, including Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., questioned him about his commitment to the bipartisan favorite Restore Our Parks Act. Most senators focused on verbal commitments from Bernhardt regarding specific state concerns.
The panel’s Democrats focused on their concerns about conflicts of interest, with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden bearing down on Bernhardt.
Wyden said Bernhardt’s assertion that he wouldn’t tolerate ethical violations makes him sound like “just another corrupt official,” referencing documents the New York Times released this week that implicate Bernhardt in an effort to block the release of a report detailing the chemical risks to certain endangered bird and fish species.
Bernhardt balked at the suggestion, saying the news report doesn’t represent the true nature of the situation, but Wyden said he was referencing the actual documentation, not just the news report.
“I think you are so conflicted that if you get confirmed you’re going to have one of two choices,” Wyden said. “One, you’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters, I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day. Or two, you’re going to be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients, regularly violating the ethics pledge.”
Other Democrats turned to Bernhardt’s plan to open up swaths of the U.S. coast for offshore drilling, including Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who questioned the nominee’s commitment to clean energy. Would the department under his leadership, she asked, make the same commitment to clean energy as it does to oil and gas?
Bernhardt answered that certain renewable energy goals were under review, as well as aggressive leasing of offshore wind power areas. When Cortez Masto asked why he kept issuing certain oil leases during the 35-day government shutdown that ended in January, Bernhardt insisted that it amounted to the availability of alternative funding sources.
Senator Martha McSally, R-Ariz., took another turn during the hearing, asking Bernhardt about his commitment to halting sexual harassment and assault in the National Park Service, calling specific attention to the “atrocious” behavior of a “bunch of frat boys” within the Grand Canyon Park Service.
“I know a little bit about going into a good ole boy network,” said the former Air Force pilot before describing the resignation of the first female superintendent of the Grand Canyon, Christine Lehnertz, who McSally said resigned due to harassment after being hired to investigate sexual misconduct.
“I was very disappointed that she chose to resign,” Bernhardt replied, adding that the Interior Department has dramatically revised the anti-harassment policy while prioritizing funding for the efforts.
He said he told management overseeing problem areas that “if they don’t deal with these issues themselves, [he’s] going to deal with management.”
Towards the end of the hearing, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin turned to climate change, asking if Bernhardt would push back on the Trump administration if it denied the science behind changing global weather patterns.
While Bernhardt said not enough is known about greenhouse gas sources and effects to be sure about how best to make decisions, he assured the panel, “I’m not a wallflower. If I’ve got a view, they’re going to hear it.”
Bernhardt’s nomination is expected to make it through to the Senate floor for a vote.
He is poised to replace Ryan Zinke, who resigned at the end of last year amid multiple investigations.