150 groups call on senators to reject DOI deputy secretary pick

Source: Corbin Hiar and Kellie Lunney, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2017

A bloc of conservation groups today called on senators to reject the George W. Bush administration official-turned-lobbyist who is now President Trump’s pick to serve in the second-most powerful position at the Interior Department.

“We are writing to express our strong opposition to the recent nomination of David Bernhardt for deputy secretary of the Interior,” the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and 148 other groups said in a letter. “After spending years lobbying for the oil and gas industry, big agribusiness and water profiteers, Mr. Bernhardt is laden with conflicts of interest that raise serious questions about his ability to act in the public interest.”

The groups also raised concerns about Bernhardt’s Bush administration record.

“During his tenure as solicitor of the Department of the Interior, the agency’s chief ethics officer, political appointees engaged in ethical lapses and decisions that sacrificed science and the environment to line corporate pockets,” they said.

“The deputy secretary of the Interior Department plays a key role in directing the management of our parks, monuments, forests, refuges, water and wildlife, including endangered species, and Mr. Bernhardt’s confirmation would imperil these public resources,” the groups wrote. “We therefore urge you to oppose his appointment.”

The letter comes the day before Bernhardt, who is currently chairman of the natural resources department at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, is set to appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for a confirmation hearing (E&E Daily, May 15).

The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, told reporters earlier this week that she plans to ask Bernhardt tomorrow about incorporating science into Interior’s decisionmaking processes.

“You know, when he’s been part of previous administrations, they had a lot of trouble applying science,” the ranking member said. “People were fired, and he might have been [Interior] solicitor during that time period, so we’ll certainly ask him about that.”

Cantwell may have been referring to Julie MacDonald, the former deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. She resigned after Interior’s inspector general found she violated ethics rules, edited scientific decisions on endangered species issues and passed internal agency information to outside parties suing the department. As a result, Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to revise seven rulings that denied endangered species listings or limited critical habitat designations (E&E News PM, Nov. 27, 2007).

The Washington Democrat also said questions about the Trump administration’s views on public lands could come up at the hearing. But Cantwell indicated that her questioning will most likely focus on Bernhardt’s resume, industry connections and potential conflicts of interest.