President Donald Trump announced Monday that he will nominate Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to lead the agency permanently, a move that comes just as House Democrats are ramping up their efforts to investigate the department’s actions during the partial government shutdown.
In a tweet on February 4, Trump declared that the former oil industry lobbyist has his support to lead the department safeguarding the nation’s public lands.
“I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” the president wrote.
I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2019
The nomination is unlikely to be a smooth process, with House Democrats preparing to interrogate Bernhardt over DOI’s movements last month during the shutdown. In addition to leaving national parks open using funding meant for other purposes, DOI also brought back employees to work on controversial projects relating to offshore drilling.
Bernhardt has lead the agency in an acting capacity for over a month, after former Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his resignation at the end of 2018 amid mounting ethics and spending scandals.
But since he came to DOI as assistant secretary, Bernhardt has been seen as instrumental to many policy rollbacks. Some of the most controversial actions of the Trump administration, including altering the Endangered Species Act and scaling back national monuments, are widely seen as being Bernhardt’s work.
He previously worked as an oil and gas lobbyist, as well as for agribusinesses fighting environmental safeguards. In fact, Bernhardt has so many potential conflicts of interest he is known for carrying a card with him listing them all as a reminder.
Environmental groups slammed Bernhardt’s nomination on Monday. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Wilderness Society, and the Center for Western Priorities (CWP) were among the organizations panning Trump’s choice as a dangerous move for environmental advocates.
In a statement, Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, called Bernhardt “the ultimate DC-swamp creature” and said he was unqualified to head DOI.
“He is simply too conflicted to be our next Interior Secretary, and the Senate should vote his nomination down,” said Saeger.
Bernhardt’s nomination notably comes two days before a scheduled hearing that will see Democrats scrutinize DOI’s actions during the shutdown. On February 6, Rep. Betty McCollum (DFW-MN), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for DOI, will hold a hearing probing the department’s decision-making process throughout the 35-day impasse. And while Bernhardt is not set to appear, he will likely remain a leading focal point.
McCollum previously told ThinkProgress that she intended to look into numerous actions undertaken during the shutdown — many of which are likely to come up during this week’s hearing. Those include using national park entry fees to keep public spaces open, despite near-unanimous outcry from organizations working to protect public lands.
“What I’ve watched Interior do is figure out every which way to make it appear that what is happening in our national parks is a mere inconvenience. It’s not a mere inconvenience. The parks should [have been] closed,” McCollum said.
Another one of DOI’s most controversial moves during the shutdown concerns oil and gas drilling. Despite initially deeming many employees non-essential and furloughing them, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) brought back at least 40 personnel to assist with certain projects three weeks into the shutdown. Those projects include the Trump administration’s efforts to open virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas drilling, in addition to issuing permits for seismic drilling.
In response to that action, the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) formally requested two weeks ago that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “immediately investigate” DOI’s moves. In addition to BOEM, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch told ThinkProgress his organization was also questioning similar drilling prioritization during the shutdown by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“We think that GAO should get in the game,” Ruch said, arguing that only lawmakers and officials with some oversight power can hold DOI accountable and discern whether decisions were made ethically during the shutdown.
That could be bad news for Bernhardt. Vacancies across numerous agencies under DOI have left a void, with Bernhardt largely seen as driving the department.
“From what we understand, David Bernhardt is making every decision of any consequence in DOI,” said Ruch.
McCollum isn’t the only lawmaker who has indicated an interest in questioning Bernhardt. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has also said he will scrutinize DOI’s shutdown work.
While Bernhardt was confirmed to his current position on a 53 to 43 vote in July 2017, opponents of his nomination are hoping Democratic lawmakers will follow through on their promises to hold the official accountable.
And on Wednesday, they’ll have their first insight into what that accountability could look like, with McCollum’s hearing set for 10 a.m.