WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to confirm David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and George W. Bush administration official, to become the next U.S. Interior Secretary.
The nomination was approved by a vote of 56-41, largely along party lines. Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico voted for his confirmation, as did Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Bernhardt will now take the reins of an agency that manages 70,000 employees and 500 million acres of federal land — about one-fifth of the land in the United States. He’s one of the more controversial figures in the Trump administration; his critics accuse him of minimizing environmental concerns in favor of pushing President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.
The Colorado native has been deputy secretary of Interior since July 2017 and has served as acting secretary of the department since January. Trump’s first Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, announced his resignation late last year as he faced a flurry of ethics investigations.
Bernhardt was previously a lawyer and lobbyist in the Denver office of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he lobbied on behalf of oil, gas, coal and water interests. He also lobbied for Hudbay Minerals, the owner of the proposed Rosemont copper mine near Tucson, Ariz.
He’s come under fire from Senate Democrats and environmentalists who warn of potential conflicts of interest. In fact, his lobbying history has left him with so many potential conflicts of interest that he carries a small card listing them all, The Washington Post reported.
Bernhardt told senators at his confirmation hearing in March that he has followed ethics guidelines by recusing himself for up to two years from decisions that could affect his former clients. But when the requirement for those recusals expire this August, Bernhardt said he no longer intends to step aside.
During the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt was an aide to Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado Attorney General, before becoming the department’s top attorney.
Under Trump, Bernhardt is credited with advancing policies to speed up approval for drilling projects and ease Endangered Species Act protections since becoming the No. 2 official at Interior. He’s facing increased scrutiny from coastal lawmakers who fear that the Trump administration will pursue offshore drilling in the waters off their states.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who — along with other state lawmakers — expressed concern about reports that Interior is planning to pursue drilling off Florida’s coast, voted to confirm Bernhardt.
“After speaking with Acting Secretary Bernhardt, the White House, and leadership in the Senate, I am confident that when all is said and done the ban on oil drilling off of Florida’s coasts will remain in place,” Rubio said in a statement.
Sinema issued a statement this week explaining her decision to break with her party to support Trump’s nominee. “After meeting with Mr. Bernhardt and carefully considering his nomination, I am confident he is professionally qualified, believes in the mission of the Interior Department, and will faithfully uphold the law,” she said.
Colorado’s Republican Sen. Cory Gardner was a ‘yes’ vote, as expected. In February, he greeted the news of Bernhardt’s nomination as “fantastic news for Colorado,” adding that as a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, “David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day.”
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was among the four Democrats who broke party lines to support Bernhardt’s confirmation as deputy secretary in 2017, but voted against his confirmation on Thursday.
“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 February statement. “Although I respect David Bernhardt as a Coloradan, I cannot support his nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior.”
Response from some quarters of Colorado’s environmental community was swift.
“Being a Colorado native does not give David Bernhardt special qualifications for running the Department of the Interior, and shame on Senator Gardner for letting the fox guard the henhouse simply because he’s from the same neighborhood,” Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, said in a statement. “Senator Gardner made a huge mistake with his vote today, given Bernhardt’s troubling record and spiraling conflicts of interest. Westerners love their public lands and the environment and Bernhardt cannot be entrusted to protect them on our behalf.”
Now that he’s won confirmation, Bernhardt can plan for extensive oversight hearings in the House, where Democrats are eager to grill him on the administration’s energy and climate change policies.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said earlier this year, “We intend to conduct vigorous oversight of Mr. Bernhardt’s industry ties and how they may influence his policy decisions. This administration has lost the benefit of the doubt, thanks in no small part to Ryan Zinke’s failed tenure at the Interior Department. We expect Mr. Bernhardt to right the ship and will act in his absence if he doesn’t.”
Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees Interior’s budget, said in an interview this week that she expects Bernhardt to testify in early May.
The administration’s policies on climate change will be a top priority for her. “I have a disagreement with an awful lot of people in this administration and I feel like he’s one in particular that has a huge say over a lot of factors that impact how we will proceed on climate change issues and he just seems to be looking in the opposite direction,” Pingree said.