WASHINGTON – The Colorado native poised to become the next secretary of the U.S. Interior Department could bring more energy development to the state’s vast public lands – from the winery-rich region of the North Fork Valley to the sagebrush open space of northwest Colorado.
President Trump last month nominated David Bernhardt. The former energy lobbyist grew up in Rifle, Colo., and has been in the agency’s No. 2 position since 2017. He faces his Senate confirmation hearing next Thursday, March 28.
Bernhardt would bring to the job nearly a decade of combined experience at the Interior Department in his latest position and a prior stint from 2001 to 2009. He also brings a long list of potential conflicts of interest from more than seven years as a lobbyist representing oil and gas, coal and water interests.
Congressional Democrats and environmental advocates are concerned Bernhardt could leverage his power and energy connections to open more federal land to oil and gas drilling and coal mining – both in Colorado and across the West.
U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) cited Bernhardt’s work inside the department and as an industry lobbyist in predicting he’ll be “more formidable” at the helm of the Interior Department than his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, the former Republican congressman from Montana, who resigned late last year in a flurry of ethics probes.
“I don’t underestimate him at all. I think Zinke was a little in over his head,” Grijalva said.
Zinke faced at least 15 investigations into ethics complaints that include allegations that he promoted projects for his own political interests and misused taxpayer money. Zinke was cleared in some of the inquiries, but others are ongoing. Zinke also engaged in political theatre such as riding a horse down the National Mall to the Interior Department for his first day of work.
Bernhardt’s approach is less showy and, critics say, driven by his knowledge of the inner-workings of Interior to maneuver policies in keeping with his pro-business agenda.
“Precisely because Bernhardt knows how the agency works and how to keep the train moving on time, theoretically he can do far more damage,” said Bill Snape, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “He knows how to do the long-term decision-making and he is already planning to make those decisions.”
The Interior Department manages 500 million acres nationwide and is in charge of national parks and forests, protection for endangered species, and permits for mining and energy development on federal land. It runs Rocky Mountain National Park and controls 27 million acres of federally-held mining and oil and gas rights.
As a former lobbyist – most recently the head of the Washington, D.C. office of the Denver-based firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck – he represented energy companies that sought to expand their reach onto federal lands and sub-surface rights. His clients included energy giants Halliburton and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Bernhardt has 27 former clients and employers that could create conflicts with his oversight at Interior, according to his ethics disclosure. He famously carried a notecard to meetings to disclose them all, The Washington Post reported.
He has the most potential conflicts of interest of any of President Trump’s 31 cabinet members, according to a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress. The group found that 20 of Bernhardt’s former clients have actively lobbied the Interior Department over the last year.
Bernhardt represented groups that pushed to loosen some protections for the Greater Sage Grouse, including Safari Club International and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. As a lobbyist, he also advocated for easing protections for a threatened fish, the Delta Smelt, as a representative of agricultural interests for Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley.
Bernhardt has said he would recuse himself from any decisions that involve those clients, but some watchdogs question whether he really could.
“Practically speaking, as the acting secretary and the secretary, it would be really difficult [to recuse himself], as he is overseeing everything,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior policy analyst for public lands at the Center for American Progress.
Bernhardt worked as the Interior Department’s top attorney during the George W. Bush administration and as an aide to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
He served on Trump’s transition team and has been a pivotal player in the administration’s “energy dominance” policy. He has been active as the deputy secretary and is serving as the acting secretary since Zinke’s resignation. Both industry groups and environmentalists predict the agency would largely continue its current course supporting energy development, should his nomination be confirmed.
“He is an extremely competent and smart individual who knows public lands in and out.” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade organization that represents oil and gas companies in the West. “He’s been running the policy show at Interior for the last year and a half. He knows how to protect public lands while still enabling responsible development.”
During his childhood in Rifle, Bernhardt saw mines grow, then shut down. He frequently cites that experience as his early education in the importance of mineral development on public lands – which he thinks is vital to keeping rural communities financially afloat.
Colo. senators split on Bernhardt
Bernhardt has already advanced some policies to change how the department approaches energy development, including efforts to speed up environmental reviews and put limits on public comment. Meanwhile, the administration is looking to open more land for energy development. It has thrown out an Obama-era moratorium on mining leases for federal lands and touted increased revenues on public lands from energy development.
The Interior Department’s policy changes could propel implementation of the administration’s controversial proposal to open large stretches of public lands in the North Fork Valley near Paonia. The area once dominated by coal mining is now home to organic farms and wineries.
Recent changes to conservation plans for the Greater Sage Grouse could also open more land to development in northwest Colorado. Interior’s management plan, which Bernhardt spearheaded, eases some of the energy restrictions that had been in place around habitat for the struggling bird. Much of that land is also habitat for other species, like deer and elk.
“The sage grouse habitat is not just for the sage grouse,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, a public lands advocacy group. “This could have the biggest impact directly to Colorado.”
The new plan could open about 350 square miles of land to oil and gas leasing, according to an analysis by the Western Values Project. The group thinks the plan was too favorable for oil and gas companies, including former clients of Bernhardt.
The Western Values Project has launched a website criticizing the Bernhardt’s nomination and detailing his lobbying ties.
Bernhardt is scheduled to appear before a Senate committee next week for what promises to be a contentious confirmation hearing. He is nonetheless expected to win approval in the majority-Republican Senate. The Senate voted 53-43 for his confirmation as deputy secretary confirmation in 2017.
Environmental groups and other opponents of the nomination are organizing an effort to try to block the confirmation. About 150 groups are expected to sign on to a letter next week calling for lawmakers to block the confirmation, according to one of the advocates working on the effort.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was one of four Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for Bernhardt then, but has said he won’t support him this time.
“During his tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Bernhardt has worked to revoke national methane standards, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and limit input from state and local officials with respect to the oil and gas leasing process in Colorado,” Bennet said in a statement. “Although I respect David Bernhardt as a Coloradan, I cannot support his nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior.”
Colorado’s Republican Senator, Cory Gardner, still supports Bernhardt, however. Gardner said Trump’s nominee would “advance Colorado priorities” at the helm of the department.
In advance of Thursday’s hearing, Bernhardt reached out to conservation and recreation groups yesterday with a new directive for federal land managers to give more consideration to how people can access land for hunting, fishing and recreation when selling or trading public land.
Allison Winter is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Newsroom. Robin Bravender contributed to this report.