The Senate has confirmed David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, to lead the Department of the Interior.
The Thursday afternoon vote, 56–41, made Bernhardt’s top position official. He’s been acting secretary since January, following Ryan Zinke’s resignation amid multiple ethics investigations. Bernhardt was previously the agency’s second-in-command.
“The Department is aware that the Senate has acted and the Acting Secretary’s nomination received significant bipartisan support,” Faith Vander Voort, an Interior Department spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Bernhardt worked for the Interior Department in various positions between 2001 and 2009. During his tenure as acting deputy since August 2017, Bernhardt has played a critical role in carrying out President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda. For example, under Bernhardt’s orders, when most of the Interior Department staff was furloughed during the last partial government shutdown, the agency continued to approve leases and permits for oil and gas drilling.
He helped craft a soon-to-be-finalized proposal to greatly expand offshore oil and gas drilling, as well as played a key role in the rollback of protections for the sage grouse, a threatened bird whose habitat overlaps with oil-rich land in the West. He also signed the “Promoting Open Science” order last October, which the agency said would boost science transparency. But science advocates said it could have the opposite impact, limiting which studies are used to inform agency decisions.
“I believe there is no question that he is ready for this job and can handle everything that it entails,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said about Bernhardt during his Senate confirmation hearing in March.
Meanwhile, Democrats, along with various environmental and conservation groups, have sharply criticized Trump’s nominee for his possible conflicts of interest.
Before joining the administration, Bernhardt worked for the lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Some of his former clients include oil and gas companies and trade groups, including Halliburton Energy Services and the US Oil & Gas Association. Per the agency’s ethics rules, he’s barred from directly working with nearly two dozen former clients until August 2019.
Days before confirmation hearing, the New York Times reported that Bernhardt helped block the release of a report by agency scientists documenting the threat of pesticides to endangered species. Referring to this article during the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said: “these documents make it look like you’re just another corrupt official.” (Bernhardt called the article “not even close to true.”)