Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the Friday before last Christmas mingling with staffers and their dogs, then flew out of Washington for a 15-day holiday break.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt was erasing the departmental handbook’s climate change chapter. One-fifth of all American land would no longer require climate science to inform decisions about water, wildlife and landscapes because, as Bernhardt’s order said, it could "potentially burden" fossil fuel extraction.
As investigations push Zinke toward potentially exiting the secretary’s suite, Bernhardt remains a steady force for rolling back environmental protections and boosting energy development. He’s kept a low profile, but both allies and adversaries say little would change after Zinke leaves because so many policies already bear Bernhardt’s imprint.
"Certainly Zinke’s calling the shots at the department. But when it comes to the detailed policies, his deputy secretary is the one doing that detailed work," Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said.
Along with the climate policy, Bernhardt has signed orders that could make it easier for industry to challenge the science undergirding department decisions (Climatewire, Oct. 4).
He’s also played a central role curtailing the scope of two bedrock environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, both of which are big obstacles to extractive industries.
Bernhardt, for example, has restricted NEPA environmental impact statements to 150 pages, or 300 for unusually complex projects, and ordered them completed within a year (Greenwire, Sept. 6, 2017).
He’s also taken a leading role in overhauling the ESA, proposing to shed the highest protections for species that are merely listed as threatened. The proposed change would make it easier to delist a species and potentially tighten critical habitats (Greenwire, July 24).
He took point on developing the executive order President Trump signed in October aiming to deliver more water to Western farmers, leaving less for ecosystems that support endangered species (Greenwire, Oct. 22).
And he was the one to roll out proposed changes to sage grouse conservation plans, a massive and complex framework that opens more land for drilling and mining across the West (E&E News PM, May 2).
He’s also gotten his hands dirty.
After Interior reassigned a raft of senior executives, some of the people affected — like former climate policy adviser Joel Clement — said it smacked of political retribution. Twelve staffers believe they had been targeted for their work under the previous administration, according to an investigation by Interior’s inspector general.
Bernhardt said the department followed the rules, but the paper trail was too scant to justify that, the IG said. Although Bernhardt arrived after that round of reassignments, he promised the department would "continue to use SES reassignments robustly as a management tool."
Critics say that fits a pattern for Bernhardt, who also served as Interior’s solicitor during the George W. Bush administration: He wields all of the power but faces none of the accountability.
The Western Values Project obtained 13,000 documents on the sage grouse plans — but only one email came from Bernhardt, according to Chris Saeger, the group’s director.
"When you consider that he’s the person running the initiative, that’s crazy," Saeger said. "And that’s indicative of what we’ve seen from Bernhardt in general, which is he really knows how to play it right up to the line."
Environmentalists have painted Bernhardt as the person truly in charge of the department, with Zinke making field trips and congressional appearances while doing little to shape policy.
Sgamma said that’s just not true, and former Obama officials say it’s not unusual for deputies to play such a sweeping role.
That’s because the deputy is the only other person who can act with the secretary’s authority, said David Hayes, who was deputy secretary under both the Clinton and Obama administrations.
In a rare public appearance, Bernhardt told a Heritage Foundation audience in October that he counts himself fortunate to work for Zinke and Trump.
"Secretary Zinke is a decisive leader who listens to information, makes a decision and then simply expects us to carry out the decision," he said, adding that it was refreshing to work for a president who won’t accept "mediocre outcomes merely because they’re supported by conventional wisdom."
Zinke’s light touch, though, has given Bernhardt more running room than past deputies, said Matt Lee-Ashley, who was Interior’s deputy chief of staff under President Obama.
One reason Zinke earned more confirmation votes than other Cabinet nominees was his support for conservation programs, as well as an ideology that was seen as less rigid than other picks, like former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Lee-Ashley said that gave Bernhardt an opportunity to influence his boss in a way that wasn’t possible for Andrew Wheeler, the No. 2 at EPA whose similar style and profile has made him a natural comparison for Bernhardt. Wheeler took over as acting EPA administrator after Pruitt resigned amid multiple scandals.
"[Zinke’s] been very pro-industry, very pro-extraction — I think more so than I think people expected, but that’s maybe a reflection of the Trump administration and the influence of David Bernhardt in particular," said Lee-Ashley, who’s now at the Center for American Progress.
The Bernhardt-Wheeler comparison also offers a reassuring lesson for industry, which might seek some more small-bore changes after Zinke leaves but has already seen progress on its big asks.
"You saw the environmental lobby take its scalps. They always do. They took Pruitt’s scalp, and the net effect on the direction of the organization was zero," Sgamma said. "I think [the transition to Bernhardt] would be seamless, just like it was with Andrew Wheeler."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented Bernhardt’s role in handling senior executive reassignments and incorrectly stated he was on the Interior beachhead team.