One day before his confirmation hearing and following the release of a secret recording and thousands of pages of documents, Interior Secretary Nominee David Bernhardt is facing hard questions about his connection the Big Oil Lobby.
On Thursday morning, David Bernhardt—former oil lobbyist, lawyer, and current acting Secretary of the Interior Department—will face a confirmation hearing for his role as acting Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt will likely face allegations that he has continued business relations with former clients in the Petroleum and Oil industry, despite his promises to recuse himself from such business. A newly released secret recording and thousands of pages of previously unseen documents clearly outline Bernhardt’s ongoing connections to the oil lobby.
Bernhardt has faced scrutiny since he first arrived on the Trump administration’s transition team. When Trump nominated him to Deputy Secretary of the Interior in April 2017, a group of 150 environmental groups fought Bernhardt’s appointment due to conflicts of interest related to his time as a lawyer for the oil industry. Bernhardt was approved and eventually made acting Secretary of the Interior after former Secretary Ryan Zinke came under investigation by the Interior Department’s Inspector General for ethics violations.
Bernhardt now faces a barrage of accusations regarding his own behavior and relationships with the Oil Industry where he formerly worked as a lobbyist. In 1998, Bernhardt began working for the Washington lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt & Farber. He has also previously worked for the George W. Bush Administration as a political aide to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. After his April 2017 nomination to Deputy Secretary of Interior, Bernhardt promised to recuse himself from working on business related to his former clients and partners.
However, in a secret recording obtained by Reveal, oil executives can be heard discussing David Bernhardt and celebrating the access they currently have to the Trump Administration. The recording took place during a 2017 Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPPA) meeting in Southern California.
“Just five months into the Trump era, the energy developers who make up the Independent Petroleum Association of America, or IPAA, already had watched the new president order a sweeping overhaul of environmental regulations that were cutting into their bottom lines – rules concerning smog, hydraulic fracturing and endangered species protection.
Dan Naatz, the association’s political director, told the audience of about 100 executives that Bernhardt’s new role meant their priorities would be heard at the highest levels of the department.“
Naatz told the audience of oil executives that he knew Bernhardt very well and had “direct access to him,” including conversations regarding federal land access to endangered species. Barry Russell, CEO of the IPAA, also bragged to the crowd about having meetings with former head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Zinke. “So we have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great,” Russell stated.
This recording is blatant evidence that the Big Oil Lobby is thrilled with David Bernhardt’s nomination and plans to accelerate their agenda. Reveal notes that since Bernhardt came into the picture, the IPAA has achieved several of their stated goals, including loosening fracking regulations meant to control water pollution, removing rules that limit climate change-causing methane gas releases, abandoning environmental restoration of public land damaged by oil development, and ending protections for migratory birds.
Despite the recording, Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort told Reveal that Bernhardt “has had no communication or contact with either Barry Russell or Dan Naatz.” Interior Department attorneys say that Bernhardt is allowed to work on matters related to former clients as long as the issues relate to a large group, not just one single client. Reveal notes that since Bernhardt began work at the department, the IPAA has spent more than $1.3 million lobbying the Interior Department.
The New York Times also reported Tuesday that Bernhardt fought the release of a report on the risks pesticides pose to endangered species. The Times obtained 84,000 pages of Interior Department documents via Freedom of Information Act requests which detail how David Bernhardt directed the department to block a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service that found two pesticides were affecting more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish, and other animals and plants. The Times reports that Bernhardt “had nine meetings or calls on his schedule with Fish and Wildlife staff in October and November 2017, and helped write the letter saying the Interior Department was no longer prepared to release the draft.”
Another report from MapLight and FastCompany shows that Bernhardt, Brownstein Hyatt & Farber employees and the firm’s political action committee contributed more than $225,000 to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee between 2013 and 2018. In total, Brownstein Hyatt & Farber and its employees donated more than $960,000 to current members of the Senate, who will cast the final vote on Bernhardt’s confirmation.
Bernhardt is facing opposition from more than 160 conservation groups who sent a letter to U.S. senators demanding they block his nomination. He is also facing resistance from 29 retired employees with a combined 737 years of service at the U.S. Department of the Interior. The group called on Senators Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin to oppose President Trump’s nominee David Bernhardt as Interior Department secretary. The senators are chairwoman and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.