Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, left, joins Trump at a Cabinet meeting on 2 January 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

By Umair Irfan
3 January 2019

(Vox) – Now that Ryan Zinke has resigned as the head of the Interior Department, his deputy David Bernhardt has begun serving as acting secretary. President Donald Trump said last month he would name a permanent replacement but has yet to do so.

This handover of power at Interior has been striking in its similarity to the change in leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency last year, where an experienced DC insider replaced a high-profile outsider.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who made a name for himself as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing the EPA 14 times before taking office, resigned last July after ethics complaints and investigations into his ostentatious conduct became too much for the White House to bear. He was replaced by his deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer who’d previously worked at the EPA. Acting Administrator Wheeler has kept a much lower profile than Pruitt while steadily advancing Trump’s agenda.

Like Wheeler, Bernhardt is a former industry lobbyist and has previously worked at the Interior Department. He’s likely to be at the helm for a while and may even end up as the permanent secretary.

Here are three key things to know about the new boss at the Interior.

Bernhardt has many potential conflicts of interest from his time as a fossil fuel lobbyist

Bernhardt, 49, began his career working as a staffer for former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO) before joining a lobbying firm. He then worked as an attorney for Interior under the George W. Bush administration. But after leaving government, he went back to lobbying, taking over the natural resources practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

A 2014 financial disclosure document shows that Bernhardt has represented a number of clients that have business before the Interior Department, including oil companies like Statoil Gulf Services, Taylor Energy, and Cobalt International Energy.

According to the Washington Post, Bernhardt has to carry a card with him to keep track of his potential conflicts of interest. He’s even had to cancel a speech to the Colorado River Water Conservation District due to ethics concerns about his previous work lobbying for other water districts.

As an agency, the Interior Department has a pretty broad scope. It’s in charge of mineral rights on federal lands, environmental stewardship, promoting outdoor recreation, and upholding treaty obligations with Native Americans.

So there are many different interests impacted by the department’s policies and a lot of groups vying for the agency’s favor. Chief among them are fossil fuel companies who want to extract coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands. [more]

A brief guide to David Bernhardt, Ryan Zinke’s replacement at the Interior Department



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