Oil and mining lobbyist David Bernhardt nominated to be Secretary of Interior

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US President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence (L) and acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On February 4, President Donald Trump announced in a 
tweet that he will be nominating Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to become the new secretary. This marks another stop in the revolving door for Bernhardt who has alternated between lobbying gigs and jobs in the Interior Department since 1998.

From 1994 to 1998, he was the legal counsel for former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.). Then he stepped into the world of lobbying for the first time as a partner at the powerful lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt et al from 1998 to 2001.

In 2001, Bernhardt started in the Department of the Interior as deputy chief of staff to the secretary and then as deputy counsel. President George W. Bush selected Bernhardt in 2005 to serve as the department’s solicitor and as U.S. Commissioner to the International Boundary Commission, U.S. and Canada. When the administrations changed with the election of President Obama, Bernhardt left the public sector to become the head of the Brownstein, Hyatt’s energy, environment and resources division.  

As Republicans took charge of the executive branch again, Bernhardt came back to the government. He was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of the Interior in summer 2017 and served in that role under then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Bernhardt was promoted to Acting Secretary after Zinke resigned under the pressure of multiple ethics violations on Jan. 2. Zinke is now working as senior vice president for a blockchain investment firm.

As a lobbyist, much of his pay came from representing energy interests. According to Center of Responsive Politics data, over the course of his lobbying career the oil and gas industry paid Bernhardt $2.1 million, the mining industry paid $1.2 million and miscellaneous energy companies paid $1.5 million for his services. According to a Washington Post article when he was deputy secretary, Bernhardt had so many conflicts of interest he carried around a notecard listing them.

One of the last companies Bernhardt represented as a lobbyist in 2016 was the Westlands Water District, which is the “largest agricultural water district in the United States” and has federal contracts to provide water to 700 California farms, according to its website. According to lobbying filings, Bernhardt lobbied on behalf of the water district on legislation involving the Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for managing the American West’s water supply and is part of the Department of the Interior.

From 2011 to 2015, he represented Rosemont Copper Co. Rosemont Copper is an open-pit proposed mine in Arizona that would be more than a mile wide in each direction, according to news reports. The mine has faced more than 11 years of legal battles from environmentalists and tribal nations who warn of the environmental impacts.

Bernhardt also lobbied on behalf of oil companies Samson Resources and Cobalt International Energy. As Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt will have sway over which companies are picked for federal contracts and will have the ability to open land up for drilling or mining.  

Unsurprisingly, Bernhardt is a reliable Republican donor. In 2016, the last cycle he contributed in, Bernhardt gave $10,000 to the NRSC, $2,700 to Donald Trump and a $500 contribution to then-Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mon.) who would become his boss. In all, he gave $32,650 to Republicans that cycle. In the 2014 cycle, among contributions to Republican candidates, Bernhardt gave $3,750 to a pro-gun rights super PAC called the Hunter Defense Fund, which receives much of its funding from hunting organization Safari Club.

Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Rep. Raúl Grijalva said in a statement that the president nominating Bernhardt with his lobbying ties to the fossil fuel industry is “a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration.” Grijalva also said that the committee will “conduct vigorous oversight of Mr. Bernhardt’s industry ties and how they may influence his policy decisions.”

Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement that she “strongly support[s] David Bernhardt to serve as the next Secretary of the Interior.” Murkowski noted that Bernhardt had “helped the Department accomplish a great deal for Alaska and the nation, both as deputy secretary and as acting secretary.” She also said she planned to schedule a hearing and move the confirmation along quickly. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement he “will examine David Bernhardt’s record and qualifications to serve as the Secretary of Interior. I look forward to meeting with him and to having him appear” before the committee.

A request for comment from Bernhardt was not returned.  

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