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.
South Carolina’s attorney general joined an offshore drilling lawsuit in January that includes SCSBC. Coastal communities in the state have expressed long-standing concerns over the impact offshore drilling could have on tourism and other local industries, potentially doing extreme damage to the state’s economy. But Knapp said that neither of the state’s senators will necessarily pay for their votes to confirm Bernhardt — unless he moves forward with offshore drilling.
Both South Carolina senators have taken muted but notable stances on drilling: Sen. Tim Scott (R) has indicated that he opposes drilling off South Carolina’s coast. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) has indicated that he would push for states to be allowed to opt out of drilling. Both positions indicate that, should the Trump administration’s drilling plans move forward, South Carolina’s senators could be forced to come down against any plan that would open the state’s waters to fossil fuel extraction. According to Knapp, they could use the federal budget as a means of stalling any offshore drilling efforts in the Atlantic Ocean.
“If necessary, that is what we would expect them to do,” Knapp said.
Environmental organizations indicated they will be watching to see whether Bernhardt engages with coastal communities and listens to the bipartisan outcry over offshore drilling.
“On the heels of the confirmation, the burning question is whether Secretary Bernhardt will listen to the bipartisan governors and coastal communities who are united against expanded offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the nonprofit group Oceana, in a statement to ThinkProgress.
Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), similarly highlighted the sentiments of coastal communities.
“Secretary Bernhardt has spent ample time listening to the oil industry about what it wants,” Weaver said in a statement. “We hope and expect he will give the same consideration to the people and businesses on the Southeast Coast, who have said clearly and forcefully they don’t want drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.”
Those closely following DOI’s offshore efforts have said for months that they expect the national Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing five-year plan to be released imminently. But Bernhardt heavily backtracked last month, telling lawmakers that the department is actually “at the very beginning of our process” and that final offshore drilling plans are a long way off.
Some experts have speculated that the department may hold off on moving forward with offshore drilling plans in order to avoid allowing the issue to become fodder during the 2020 election, something that could hurt coastal Republicans. In the meantime, lawmakers in Congress are moving forward with efforts to block offshore drilling at a national level. If that legislation gains momentum, it could serve as a litmus test for lawmakers beyond Bernhardt’s confirmation.
“The Department of Interior has been sitting on the offshore drilling plan for months and the people want to know whether they are going to be protected,” said Hoskins. “It’s time for the administration to reverse course and stand with the people.”
This article has been updated to clarify the stances of South Carolina’s senators.