Overseeing Federal Lands

Former oil lobbyist confirmed as new Secretary of the Interior

Bears Ears National Monument, one of the protected lands that was shrunk while David Bernhardt was Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

The United States Senate voted 56-41 this week to confirm former fossil fuel lobbyist David Bernhardt as the new Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt previously served as the deputy to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in late 2018 amid a firestorm of ethics scandals.

With the confirmation vote, Bernhardt assumes stewardship of over 500 million acres of federally-owned lands across the country.

The New York Times reported that due to his central role in crafting policy initiatives while working as Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt’s influence is already being felt across the country. Changes at the Department of Interior during the first two years of the Trump administration include shrinking several national monuments that had been expanded under President Barack Obama, including the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, as well as allowing for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s largest pristine landscape.

While working under the former Interior Secretary, Bernhardt also pushed for increased oil exploration activities off the nation’s coasts. A plan for how and where to develop additional fossil fuel resources off the nation’s coasts is due next year.

Bernhardt takes over at a pivotal time for the Department of Interior, which runs the Bureau of Land Management as well as the National Parks Service (NPS).

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the NPS is suffering from over $11 billion in deferred maintenance costs, a nasty backlog that was fully on display during the 2019 government shutdown, when raw sewage and trash piled up across many national parks.

According to the group, 18 percent of the maintenance backlog amount relates to the NPS’s building stock, which is in serious disrepair. NPS roads and water treatment facilities are also awaiting much-needed upgrades.

Bernhardt himself has been plagued by ethics investigations and questions regarding his ties to former lobbying clients, but the concerns were not enough to halt his confirmation.

Prior to his role in the Trump administration, Bernhardt served as Solicitor of the Department of Interior for President George W. Bush.

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