‘A walking conflict of interest’: ex-oil lobbyist confirmed to lead US interior department | US news | The Guardian

“David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest who is selling out our public lands to his former clients in the fossil fuel industry,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“Like Ryan Zinke before him, Bernhardt is clearly more interested in doing favors for his corporate polluting friends than in responsibly managing our shared public spaces. We will not back down in our efforts to hold Bernhardt accountable for his abuse of ethical norms and his dangerous, pro-polluter agenda.”

The Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said: “The Zinke ethics hurricane was bad enough. America should not be harmed again by a Bernhardt ethical typhoon.”

Citing figures from the Office of Government Ethics, Wyden said at least 27 former clients representing the oil and gas industry, coal, water districts and agriculture pose “unlimited numbers of conflicts of interest” for Bernhardt. “The interior secretary is supposed to be running [the department] for the benefit of the public, not for special interests,” Wyden said.

‘A walking conflict of interest’: ex-oil lobbyist confirmed to lead US interior department | US news | The Guardian

Senate voted 56-41 to approve David Bernhardt’s nomination as critics say he is a ‘walking conflict of interest’

Donald Trump and David Bernhardt in Washington DC on 21 January.
Donald Trump and David Bernhardt in Washington DC on 21 January. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The Senate has voted to confirm David Bernhardt, a former a former oil and gas and water lobbyist, as secretary of the embattled interior department.

Senators voted 56-41 to approve Bernhardt’s nomination to oversee more than 500m acres of public lands and other resources, including national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges.

Bernhardt, who was confirmed as deputy secretary in July 2017, has been acting secretary since Ryan Zinke – who was plagued by scandal – stepped down in December. Democrats have complained that the former oil and gas lobbyist has used his federal position to benefit former industry clients.

Before joining the administration, Bernhardt worked at a Washington law and lobbying firm on behalf of mining companies, oil and gas giants, a politically powerful western water agency and other groups that have business before the interior department.

“David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest who is selling out our public lands to his former clients in the fossil fuel industry,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“Like Ryan Zinke before him, Bernhardt is clearly more interested in doing favors for his corporate polluting friends than in responsibly managing our shared public spaces. We will not back down in our efforts to hold Bernhardt accountable for his abuse of ethical norms and his dangerous, pro-polluter agenda.”

The Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said: “The Zinke ethics hurricane was bad enough. America should not be harmed again by a Bernhardt ethical typhoon.”

Citing figures from the Office of Government Ethics, Wyden said at least 27 former clients representing the oil and gas industry, coal, water districts and agriculture pose “unlimited numbers of conflicts of interest” for Bernhardt. “The interior secretary is supposed to be running [the department] for the benefit of the public, not for special interests,” Wyden said.

Wyden and other Democrats said Bernhardt has taken actions to weaken the Endangered Species Act, including erosion of protections for a California fish species long targeted by a former client, the Westlands Water District, one of the largest and most politically powerful water utilities in the country.

Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who leads the energy and natural resources committee, said Bernhardt, 49, has the experience and expertise needed to lead the department. The Colorado native worked at the interior department for eight years under former president George W Bush, including as the department’s top lawyer.

“He is from the west, he has great familiarity with the issues that will come before him and he has proven that he can ably lead the department,” Murkowski said. She said Bernhardt “has proven to be a strong partner not only for Alaska, but states all across the country”.

She linked ethics allegations against Bernhardt to unspecified, “pretty well-funded groups that are working very hard and very energetically against his nomination”.

Three Democrats, Senators Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted for Bernhardt, as did the independent senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.

Democrats and environmental groups also criticized Bernhardt for failing to stand up to Trump on his proposal to drastically expand offshore drilling along the east and west coasts, including off the coast of Florida, where a moratorium on offshore drilling expires in 2022.

The Florida Republican senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted in favor of Bernhardt after receiving assurances from him and other administration officials that the state would be excluded from drilling proposals.

Rubio said in a statement that the department cannot legally take Florida off the table until public comments are received. But, he said, “I am confident that when all is said and done the ban on oil drilling off of Florida’s coasts will remain in place.”

The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Bernhardt‘s refusal to rule out offshore drilling in Florida “should be a wake-up call to my colleagues all up and down the coasts Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf” that offshore drilling is a possibility despite bipartisan opposition.

“It is hard to imagine someone whose background is so at odds with the department’s mission as Mr Bernhardt,” Schumer said. “President Trump, for all his talk of draining the swamp, wants to add yet another Washington swamp creature lobbyist to his cabinet.”

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