The Senate easily confirmed former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt to serve as secretary of the Interior Department (DOI) on Thursday, even as coastal senators failed to obtain a guarantee from the official on offshore drilling, which is opposed by every East and West Coast state.
Senators confirmed Bernhardt on Thursday afternoon in a 56 to 41 vote that fell largely along party lines after several hours of back-and-forth on the Senate floor. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), and Martin Heinrich (NM) joined Republicans in confirming Bernhardt, along with Sen. Angus King (ME), an independent who caucuses with Democrats. The vote followed a 56 to 41 cloture vote on Wednesday evening that advanced Bernhardt’s nomination.
Bernhardt’s appointment comes despite the failure of a number of anti-drilling senators to obtain a promise from the official on offshore drilling.
In 2018, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to open up virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas exploration and development. That move was met with immediate backlash; offshore drilling poses a threat to tourism and coastal economies because of the outsized risks of a potential oil spill, like the infamous 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Gulf Coast.
Every East and West Coast state opposes offshore drilling along their respective coasts, including in Republican-controlled states that have been more open to fossil fuel interests. Zinke granted Florida a verbal exemption from drilling plans, while declining to do so for other states. Bernhardt, however, has offered no such assurances for any coastal state.
Some states, including Florida, have banned offshore drilling in their waters. But states only control their waters up to three miles out from the coast — the rest is in the hands of the federal government.
In his Senate floor remarks on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that he had met recently with Bernhardt and the official had declined to acknowledge the severity of climate change. Moreover, Bernhardt refused to guarantee that he would adhere to the will of any state opposed to drilling off its coast.
“I got no answers to these questions,” said Schumer, who pointed to offshore drilling as a chief argument for voting against Bernhardt, particularly for coastal lawmakers.
“I would like to remind all my colleagues off the Atlantic Coast… [that] he would not commit to that,” the minority leader said.
“A vote for David Bernhardt is a vote for offshore drilling,” echoed Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Menendez said the question of whether Bernhardt would pursue offshore drilling is “not a matter of if, but a matter of when.”
Those voting in favor of Bernhardt included Florida Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both of whom had initially indicated they might hold out on confirming Bernhardt until he affirmed Florida’s offshore drilling exemption. But they failed to obtain that guarantee ahead of Thursday’s confirmation vote, something Rubio downplayed on Twitter.
“I am VERY confident that when all is said & done no oil drilling is coming to our coastline,” Rubio wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.
The senator commented that DOI is unable to exempt Florida until public comment has been taken on the issue — although DOI has taken public comments on its plan, which has been in the works for over a year.
The way coastal senators voted on Bernhardt’s confirmation could factor into the 2020 election cycle — drilling opponents in coastal states have repeatedly threatened to target any lawmakers who pave the way for offshore drilling. But that depends largely on whether or not the Trump administration actually moves forward with its much-discussed drilling plans.
“Our senators wouldn’t be expected to not support the president’s pick for Interior because of the offshore drilling issue,” Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce (SCSBC), told ThinkProgress, referring to South Carolina’s senators.