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Ryan Zinke's Replacement Is a Fresh Nightmare for Public Lands

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Noted oil and gas lover Ryan Zinke is on his way out the door at the Department of Interior. And like fellow grifter Scott Pruitt who also left us too soon, Zinke’s temporary (for now) replacement is much less scandal-plagued and much more laser-focused on gutting the agency.

David Bernhardt is currently the Department of Interior’s second in command, but he’ll ascend to acting secretary once Zinke leaves at the end of the year (and could remain there since he’s already been confirmed by the Senate and the administration has recently struggled finding qualified people to fill key roles). Like Andrew Wheeler who took over for Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for the exact industries that will now try to curry favor with him as acting secretary. He’s been called a “walking conflict of interest,” and if his past record is any indication, he’ll be more than happy to let the industries whose bidding he’s done get their way to the detriment of public lands.


Bernhardt worked for the George W. Bush administration, then became a lobbyist for companies with business before the department, and then came back to Interior last year. During his stint with Interior under Bush, Bernhardt rose to solicitor general. Along the way, he helped push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) while ignoring scientific guidance suggesting that might not be a good idea. But it’s his most recent efforts lobbying are the biggest red flags because they bring with them a host of entanglements.

After the Bush administration, Bernhardt joined Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, and Schreck as a lawyer and lobbyist for all the bigs: Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Mining and Big Agriculture. His work for these groups has left him with a laundry list on his ethics forms of recusals whenever they have an issue come before the Department of the Interior. Halliburton, the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, Rosemont Copper Company, and Statoil are on that list. All have business on Department of Interior lands or proposals before the agency.


Along the way, he filed suits against the Department of Interior for a number of these groups. Among his greatest hits are suing on behalf of the Westland Water District—home to some of California’s biggest farmers—over a $375 million drainage dispute, or the state of Alaska to get oil exploration rights within ANWR. As a lobbyist, Bernhardt also pushed bills that would make offshore drilling easier. The Trump administration has pursued these issues with gusto and reports indicate that Bernhardt has been a driving force, showing that even though he has recused himself from dealing with firms he’s represented, he’s still helped create policies that benefit them. Not all those policies have been successful or even remotely close to popular, but the business-friendly turn of the department has been one of the Trump administration’s hallmarks.

“Bernhardt was behind most of that work already and will continue to ignore science and the input of career professionals to try to jam through his objectives,” Joel Clement, a former Department of Interior whistleblower and fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, told Earther. “The difference now is that the courts are no longer the only institutions in his way. The House will finally hold him and his team accountable so it’s unlikely they can play as fast and loose with rules and norms as they did the previous two years.”

With Democrats taking over the house next month, oversight promises to become more stringent. Before leaving, Zinke was set to enter what would likely have been a world of pain. He had at least 17 ethics investigations inside the department and more scrutiny was almost surely on the way, particularly after he personally attacked Representative Raul Grijalva, the likely incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees the department. Bernhardt doesn’t come with the personal baggage of Zinke, but his convoluted past is already on Grijalva’s radar.

“His years of lobbying on behalf of clients who stand to profit from Interior policy decisions are cause for serious concern,” the Arizona Democrat said in a statement to Earther. “We intend to continue conducting vigorous oversight of how Interior political appointees arrive at major policy decisions, who they consult, who they ignore, and who stands to benefit financially. Deputy Secretary Bernhardt should be prepared to answer those questions early in the new Congress, and so should Secretary Zinke’s successor.”