WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is nominating David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for oil and gas companies and other industries, to head the Interior Department despite objections from environmental groups that Bernhardt already was making regulatory decisions on the country’s natural resources to benefit industries.
Trump tweeted his intention to nominate Bernhardt, now the Interior Department’s acting head, to replace former Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke resigned in December amid ethics investigations.
“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived,” Trump tweeted Monday.
In a statement, Bernhardt called it a “humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, commonsense vision of our president.”
Bernhardt’s reputation as a technocrat working efficiently behind the scenes stands as a 180-degree turn from that of his flamboyant predecessor. Zinke grabbed attention when he rode a horse to his first day at Interior. Zinke soon was garnering headlines over allegations involving travel and allegations of possible conflicts of interest.
Bernhardt has remained low-profile as Trump weighed him and a half-dozen other reported contenders — chiefly, Western lawmakers — as successors to Zinke.
As acting secretary, Bernhardt drew criticism in recent weeks from environmental groups, tribes and others for continuing to process paperwork for oil and gas projects while other agencies were closed for routine work during this winter’s partial government shutdown.
The Interior Department called its effort important to bolstering U.S. energy independence.
“Bernhardt got this nomination as a reward for months of work cramming America’s natural heritage into a wood chipper,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity advocacy group, one of many environmental organizations condemning Trump’s intended nomination. “Confirming him as Interior secretary would be a boon to polluters and a colossal disaster for our public lands and endangered species.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said lawmakers would be watching to see whether Bernhardt’s former industry ties were influencing his policy decisions.
“David Bernhardt spent much of his career lobbying for fossil fuel and agricultural interests, and the president putting him in charge of regulating his former clients is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration,” Grijalva said in a statement.
Republican lawmakers praised Trump’s pick.
“David Bernhardt ... brings tremendous leadership with him from our home state of #Colorado and I look forward to a swift confirmation process,” Rep. Ken Buck tweeted.
Bernhardt, who is from Colorado, first served in Interior as a political appointee under President George W. Bush, becoming the agency’s top lawyer.
After his first round at Interior, Bernhardt worked at a Washington law and lobbying firm on behalf of mining companies, oil and gas giants, a politically powerful Western water agency and other groups that have business before the Interior Department.
Coming back to Interior as Zinke’s deputy, Bernhardt recused himself from decisions involving a long list of former industry clients to avoid conflicts of interest under ethics rules.
Republicans say Bernhardt’s revolving-door experience makes him an informed regulator in matters before the agency. Democrats and environmental groups say he’s vulnerable to conflicts of interest.
Under leadership of Zinke and Bernhardt, the Interior Department has pushed to open more Alaskan wilderness and offshore waters to oil and gas development.
Bernhardt touted record sales for oil and gas leases under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday as he sought to promote energy development on public lands.
He said the federal agency last year generated $1.1 billion from the lease sales, making 2018 its highest-grossing year.
Bernhardt’s announcement came the same day he toured an oilfield equipment manufacturing plant in Hobbs, a city of about 40,000 people near the Texas line. Bernhardt attributed the revenue boost to Trump-era policy changes that aim to open up more federal land to drilling and other energy development.
“This was a historic year for oil and gas, and clearly illustrates what is possible when public lands are put to work using innovation, best science, and best practices,” said Brian Steed, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs. “Our sound energy policy continues to ensure reliable, safe, abundant, and affordable energy for all Americans, without putting unnecessary burdens on industry.”
The Hobbs News-Sun reported that Bernhardt briefly toured a plant owned by rig manufacturer Watson Hopper and told employees there that Trump had asked him to visit the region a day after his State of the Union Address in Washington.
The New Mexico city is a part of the Permian Basin, an oil-rich region that federal geologists last year said has the potential to double the nation’s onshore oil and gas resources and sustain an energy boom.