New Interior Secretary May Be Worse than the First

President Donald Trump has officially nominated Acting Secretary of the Interior to permanently fill the post vacated by disgraced former Secretary Ryan Zinke, triggering calls for an ethics investigation into the former oil lobbyist’s links to the energy industry. If approved by the Senate, Bernhardt will be directly responsible for the nation’s National Parks, including Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He will also oversee offshore oil drilling leases, and oil, mineral and gas leases on federal lands. Photo courtesy of Department of Interior

President Donald Trump has now officially selected Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) David Bernhardt to replace disgraced former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was forced to resign under a cloud of scandal related to numerous ethics violations.

The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for overseeing the agency that regulates all federal lands, including national parks like Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA ); leases on public lands for gas and minerals; offshore oil leases; and tribal lands.

Nearly half of the SMMNRA was burned in the Woolsey Fire, with almost 90 percent of the open space owned directly by the National Park Service (NPS) damaged. Full recovery will require federal support.

Zinke was not supportive of National Parks and National Monuments, actively working to undo protections. Bernhardt appears equally committed to what has been described by conservation organizations as the Trump Administration’s war on public lands.

Mr. Trump has heaped praise on Bernhardt: “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” the president tweeted.

Environmentalists are considerably less enthused. Bernhardt, an oil industry lobbyist who has described the Endangered Species Act as “an unnecessary regulatory burden” is seen as potentially an even bigger threat to the agency and the federal lands it oversees than his predecessor.

Bernhardt will have to recuse himself from direct dealing with a lengthy list of former energy industry clients that include Sempra Energy and Halliburton. According to reporting in The Hill, that list is so long Bernhardt has to carry his list of recusals around with him in case he forgets. That list and Bernhardt’s refusal to turn over his calendar meetings—he claims he doesn’t keep one—is already generating ethics problems as the acting secretary.

In December, Greenpeace USA and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to Mary Kendall, the Inspector General of the Department of Interior, requesting an investigation into Bernhardt’s ethics commitments.

“The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his commitment to pandering to oil, coal, and gas executives make former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging environmentalist in comparison, and Ryan Zinke was a disaster,” wrote Greenpeace USA Climate Campaigner Vicky Wyatt, in response to Mr. Trump’s announcement that he would officially nominate Bernhardt for Secretary of the Interior.

“We already let Bernhardt do enough damage to our federal lands and waters as deputy secretary—we have to stop him before he destroys some of this country’s best ideas including the Endangered Species Act. Our new leaders in Congress can demonstrate respect for our country’s most unique natural treasures by not only holding both Zinke and Bernhardt accountable for possible ethical violations, but by only confirming an Interior Secretary who wishes to strengthen and protect public lands and waters, not destroy them for corporate gain.”

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal have now written to Kendall, requesting that Bernhardt’s activities be investigated.

“We write to express our significant concern about potential ethics violations committed by David Bernhardt, the Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), and to ask for an Inspector General investigation of Mr. Bernhardt’s actions,” the letter, dated February 26, states.

“This request follows recent reports that Mr. Bernhardt is involved in Department decisions to roll back long-standing protections for endangered wildlife, which would directly benefit one of his former clients. This matter is particularly urgent because Mr. Bernhardt has been nominated by President Trump to serve as Secretary of the Interior and is currently awaiting a Senate confirmation hearing.”

Bernhardt appears to be unconcerned by the allegations. “It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our President,” Bernhardt said in a statement.

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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