Former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth penned a head-scratching piece in The Colorado Independent this week. In it, he paints the nomination of fellow Coloradan David Bernhardt to lead the Interior Department as an opportunity for the former oil lobbyist to enact a strong conservation agenda. Unfortunately, Bernhardt has been the architect of the most environmentally hostile policies America has seen in a generation.
Keep in mind that Bernhardt would not be joining Interior as a fresh face, with the chance to change the department’s course. Bernhardt designed Trump’s Interior Department from the start. In 2016, President-elect Trump placed Bernhardt in charge of the transition and landing team at Interior, even as he continued to work for his oil, mining, and agriculture clients at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. David Bernhardt pre-dates Ryan Zinke’s arrival at Interior by several months.
Then when Zinke needed a deputy to run day-to-day operations, Bernhardt found the perfect man for the job by looking in the mirror. (It’s not unlike the 2000 presidential campaign, when George W. Bush placed Dick Cheney in charge of the search for a running mate.)
Senator Wirth rightly begins with a litany of environmental outrages under the Trump administration: removing protections for millions of acres of public lands, opening millions more to oil and gas development, scrapping protections for the sage-grouse, and prioritizing energy development over conservation and recreation. While Wirth suggests that Bernhardt could “rebalance” the department, the reality is Bernhardt and his former clients were central to each and every one of the policies he’s denouncing. Let’s review:
“Protections for more than 2 million acres of public lands have been removed”
In December 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that attempted to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The Interior Department report that recommended the President take those actions was riddled with factual errors. Bernhardt, as deputy secretary, would have been deeply involved in the drafting and editing of any documents being presented to the President with the Interior secretary’s signature. If he disagreed with the recommendations to remove protections from millions of acres of public land and water, he could have said so at any point, or altered the recommendations in the report before presenting it to Zinke.
“13 million acres of public lands have been offered for oil and gas development”
Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist and lawyer, has been one of the loudest cheerleaders of the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda. His former clients, which include the Independent Petroleum Association of America and U.S. Oil and Gas Association, have proudly endorsed Bernhardt’s nomination as secretary.
“Efforts to stem emissions of methane – a powerful heat-trapping gas – have been curtailed”
David Bernhardt’s clients sued the BLM to stop its common-sense methane rule. Six weeks after Bernhardt became deputy secretary, BLM eliminated the rule, an action that was cheered by those clients.
“Carefully crafted conservation measures for the endangered sage grouse have been scrapped”
Senator Wirth goes on to encourage Bernhardt to protect sensitive areas from drilling, including Colorado’s Thompson Divide and New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. But under Bernhardt’s leadership, the Bureau of Land Management has repeatedly offered up parcels for drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, only to postpone—but not cancel—those leases under pressure from tribes and elected officials.
As deputy secretary, Bernhardt could have taken those Chaco leases off the table permanently at any time. Instead, he continues to kick the can down the road even as he flies to New Mexico to tout massive oil and gas production in the state.
Rather than asking whether David Bernhardt will “rebalance” the Interior Department, Coloradans ought to ask why Bernhardt spent the last two years tipping the scales entirely toward his former clients, and if there’s any reason that would change if he got a promotion.
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