David Bernhardt, right, the deputy interior secretary, has worked for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. On Monday, 4 February 2019, Trump announced he would nominate Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps. Photo: David Zalubowski / Associated Press

By Coral Davenport
4 February 2019

WASHINGTON (The New York Times) – President Trump on Monday announced he would nominate David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps.

In a message on Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote, “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”

While Mr. Zinke had been the public face of some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history, Mr. Bernhardt was the one quietly pulling the levers to carry them out, opening millions of acres of land and water to oil, gas and coal companies. He is described by allies and opponents alike as having played a crucial role in advancing what Mr. Trump has described as an “energy dominance” agenda for the country.

“Bernhardt has really been running the show, directing the policy shop in a very strong way,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at the University of Colorado Law School.

Echoing a frequent critique of Mr. Bernhardt, Mr. Squillace emphasized that the former energy lobbyist and lawyer, if confirmed by the Senate, would have broad authority to shape rules that affect his former clients. “That’s my concern with Bernhardt, his ties to industry,” Mr. Squillace said.

Republicans and the oil industry cheered the appointment. “It’s a brilliant move,” said Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, whom Mr. Trump had also considered for the job. “No one is more experienced, and I look forward to working with him.” […]

As Mr. Bernhardt prepares to take the helm, he is well aware that he will face accusations of conflicts of interest. The issue came up repeatedly in his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing for the deputy job.

He told senators that he would assiduously avoid potential conflicts of interest. “If I get a whiff of something coming my way that involves a client or a former client for my firm, I’m going to make that item run straight to the ethics office,” he said. “And when it gets there, they’ll make whatever decision they’re going to make. And that will be it for me.” […]

Environmentalists see him as a threat. “David Bernhardt is the most dangerous man in America for endangered species and public lands,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, adding that he “has been dismantling basic protections for lands that belong to all of us and the vulnerable species, like the sage grouse, that depend on them.”

This year, Mr. Bernhardt oversaw the revision of a program to protect tens of millions of acres of habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, a puffy-chested, chickenlike bird that roams over 10 oil-rich Western states. His proposal to change that plan, made public in December, would strip protections from about nine million acres of the sage grouse habitat, a move that would open more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration.

Mr. Bernhardt has also helped shepherd policies such as loosening the standards of the Endangered Species Act, speeding the path to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new oil and gas drilling, and reducing the boundaries of national monuments to open the land to mining and drilling. [more]

Trump Chooses David Bernhardt, a Former Oil Lobbyist, to Head the Interior Dept.

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