Trump’s nominee for second-in-command at the Department of the Interior told his Senate confirmation committee on Thursday that upholding the president’s political stances would be more important than following science when crafting agency policy.
“Here’s the reality: we’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but… policy decisions are made — this president ran and he won on a particular perspective,” David Bernhardt told Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
Bernhardt repeatedly reiterated that he would “look at the science” but base policy decisions on the administration’s priorities whenever possible.
“That perspective’s not going to change to the extent we have the discretion under the law to follow it,” he said. “In some instances we might not, but those that we do we’re absolutely going to follow the policy perspective of the president. And here’s why: that’s the way our republic works, and he is the president.”
Several senators asked Bernhardt about his previous tenure at the department, during which he and his subordinates were accused of manipulating environmental data in order to favor oil and gas companies.
In 2001, Bernhardt rewrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientific findings that warned of the impact of Arctic drilling on caribou herds. According to reporting by Mother Jones in 2003, Bernhardt helped prepare congressional testimony on the environmental impacts of drilling in the Arctic for then-Secretary Gale Norton. Norton’s testimony ignored warnings from government scientists and used information from a BP report, instead.
Also during Bernhardt’s earlier stint at the department, Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald was forced to resign after accusations she had revised U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports to make “the science fit the policy.”
“I wasn’t the person who modified any data,” Bernhardt said Thursday.
During the hearing Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) also entered into the record a 2008 Wall Street Journal report that said that during his tenure, the nominee allowed oil and gas companies to avoid offshore royalties, costing taxpayers $10.5 billion over 25 years.
Bernhardt’s ties to oil and gas are of particular interest now. The Department of the Interior recently announced that it would redo the Bureau of Land Management’s five-year plan for offshore drilling, including new plans to reconsider the Arctic for drilling and to potentially open the Eastern Seaboard for seismic testing and drilling.
There are other significant areas of concern with Bernhardt’s nomination. As a long-time D.C. lobbyist, Bernhardt has represented many of the industries he would regulate in his position as deputy secretary. Moreover, his firm has financial ties to projects that are still awaiting a decision from the Interior Department.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked Bernhardt about his ties to Cadiz Inc. Bernhardt’s D.C. lobbying firm owns 200,000 shares of the stock in Cadiz. The Trump administration has already overturned an Obama-era decision blocking Cadiz’s proposed project that would pump water under the Mojave Desert to Southern California population centers. If the Interior Department approves the plan, Bernhardt’s firm could earn nearly $3 million more. Cantwell asked the nominee to recuse himself from the decision for the duration of his time as deputy secretary, but Bernhardt did not specifically commit to doing so.
“Whatever my firm’s interest may or may not be, the minute I walk out of that firm, I have no interest in their interests. And that is the way the law operates, that’s the way the law is set up, and that is the way I would follow the law,” he said. Bernhardt added that any decisions involving former clients would go through the ethics office.
Sen. Stabenow noted that he had a “long history of lobbying for oil and gas stakeholders” and has “even litigated against the Interior Department for private interests.”
In that sense, Bernhardt will be in good company in this administration. A number of Trump’s cabinet members and political appointees have worked directly in oil and gas or in lobbying, or both. Prior to his appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was best known for his lawsuits against the agency he now runs.