Ryan Zinke’s exit as interior secretary elevates a former lobbyist to the job, meaning the top two US environmental agencies will now be run by people previously paid by industry.
The deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, will take over at least temporarily when Zinke steps down at the end of the year. He also could be in the running to head the department permanently. And at the Environmental Protection Agency, the acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who was a coal lobbyist, will be nominated to keep the post.
Bernhardt was a fossil fuels and water industry lobbyist at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck before he joined the Trump administration. He was previously the chief lawyer at the interior department under the George W Bush administration .
In an ethics pledge, Bernhardt said he would wait until August 2019 to have certain interactions with his former firm and some major oil and gas companies he represented. But many of the industry-friendly changes he has ushered in as the No 2 official were on the wishlists of the companies who employed him.
“It’s not so much who has he helped. It’s who hasn’t he helped in industry so far,” said Bobby McEnaney, who works on western US energy issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The notion that he could extricate himself from benefiting his former clients is impossible.”
Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, has installed lobbyists across the federal government.
Many of Bernhardt’s former clients are lobbying his department now. The California-based Cadiz Inc spent at least $330,000 this year with his old firm, including to lobby the department, according to required disclosures. The interior department’s Bureau of Land Management in October 2017 approved the company’s pipeline to pump groundwater out of the Mojave desert, in a move that prompted lawsuits from environmentalists.
Westlands Water District, which includes large agricultural businesses in California, paid Bernhardt’s firm a total of $1.43m while he was one of its lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Westlands has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this year lobbying Congress and the department, including on changes related to the Endangered Species Act, according to government records.
Bernhardt has led efforts to weaken endangered species protections, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post claiming that the way the law is implemented makes for an “unnecessary regulatory burden”.
Bernhardt also represented Taylor Energy, the oil company that has been leaking hundreds of barrels per oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico for 14 years, nearly overtaking the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Taylor is still lobbying the department through Bernhardt’s former firm, reporting it has spent $70,000 this year on “decommissioning activities in the outer continental shelf”, which covers the Gulf.
Bernhardt listed other major oil and gas and energy companies in his ethics pledge, including Halliburton Energy Services, Targa Energy, Noble Energy, NRG Energy, Eni Petroleum, Sempra Energy, the US Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America
In a press release about Zinke’s departure, the American Energy Alliance praised department efforts in which Bernhardt has been involved, including easing permitting requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, rescinding regulations on methane emissions and shrinking the Bears Ears national monument in Utah.
Scientists say Bernhardt’s ties are problematic because he ignores research in favor of business.
In one example, scientists at the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service have warned that seismic testing ahead of drilling in the Arctic national wildlife refuge could hurt polar bears, according to a memo obtained by Mother Jones.
The Bureau of Land Management is dismantling a 2015 compromise between states, oil companies and environmentalists to protect the at-risk sage grouse.
A recent study from the interior’s US Geological Survey found that a quarter of the US greenhouse gases that cause climate change come from oil and gas production on public land, but the department is encouraging more drilling.
Department officials have also disregarded a government report warning about the risks from climate change.
Joel Clement, a climate scientist who left the interior department, said Bernhardt has long been “pulling the strings” on those major decisions and that he has been hostile to science.
“They’re not going to let science hold them back. That’s the thing that is so hard for us to get our head around is that, really, they are completely disregarding science,” Clement said.
— Read on The Guardian