David Bernhardt to be Named Acting Interior Secretary

David Bernhardt to be Named Acting Interior Secretary
David Bernhardt is expected to be named acting Interior secretary by President Donald Trump.

(Bloomberg) - A former lobbyist who has played a leading, behind-the-scenes role at the Interior Department driving Trump administration policies to expand drilling and strip wildlife protections is poised to take over the agency at least temporarily.

David Bernhardt is expected to be named acting Interior secretary by President Donald Trump, following the resignation of current chief Ryan Zinke, which was announced Saturday.

The leadership shuffle may be more of a change in style than substance at Interior, an $11 billion agency with some 70,000 workers and responsibility overseeing drilling, grazing and other activities on public land and in federal waters. The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management are units of the department.

The Senate confirmed Bernhardt for his current job by a narrow 53-43 vote, raising the possibility he’d face a tough confirmation fight if Trump were to nominate him to formally lead Interior. The White House has been considering a raft of potential nominees, and Trump on Saturday said he would name a new secretary this week.

Even without Senate confirmation, Bernhardt could potentially serve as acting secretary for years with virtually no limits on his power.

Unlike Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who rode a horse to the Interior Department’s offices on his first day on the job and had a secretarial flag hoisted whenever he was inside the agency’s headquarters, Bernhardt, 49, avoids the spotlight.

His profile is so low, in fact, that though he led a review of conservation plans for the endangered sage grouse, his name barely shows up in thousands of pages of Interior Department documents from the effort. Bernhardt’s public calendars also are devoid of detail about who he’s meeting with or why.

“In some ways, Bernhardt is hiding in plain sight,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director for the Center for American Progress, which has opposed some Interior actions taken under Trump and Zinke. “He is a central figure in all of the highest profile issues that the Interior Department is working on, but we know next to nothing about who he is meeting with and what he is doing to advance those priorities.”

Hard Working

Bernhardt’s supporters and critics alike describe him as a smart, hard-working lawyer who strategically and methodically advances his goals, often finding ways to use the bureaucracy to his advantage.

“One of the major assets he has in any job he has ever had is an ability to figure out the bureaucracy and understand process better than others,” said Jon Hrobsky, an attorney who worked with Bernhardt during the Bush administration.

Most of Bernhardt’s professional life has been tied to Interior -- either working inside the agency or lobbying it from the outside. After a stint at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt went to work for former President George W. Bush’s Interior Department in 2001, eventually becoming the agency’s top lawyer in 2006.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Bernhardt returned to his old firm, where he worked on behalf of oil companies and developers with business before his former agency. Bernhardt’s client list included affiliates of Noble Energy Inc., a major Gulf of Mexico oil producer; Equinor ASA, the Norwegian company seeking to build a wind farm off the New York coast; and Halliburton Co., the world’s largest oilfield services provider.

Bernhardt challenged protections for endangered salmon on behalf of California’s Westlands Water District. He lobbied for a proposed copper mine near Tucson, Arizona, on behalf of Rosemont Copper Co. And he fought a deep-water drilling ban in the Gulf of Mexico on behalf of Cobalt International Energy Inc. Bernhardt also represented Alaska in a 2014 lawsuit against the Interior Department that sought to allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When Bernhardt became Interior’s deputy secretary in August 2017, he pledged to recuse himself from matters involving some former clients for at least a year. He described a scrupulous process to steer clear of potential conflicts in an interview with Bloomberg News, including listing companies to avoid on a pocket-sized card and in a memo to staff.


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