Trump taps Bernhardt to replace Zinke

This story was updated at 4:08 p.m.

President Trump today announced his plans to nominate acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for the department's top job, elevating a savvy manager known for both his policy expertise and his background as a lawyer and lobbyist for oil, gas and Western water interests.

A 49-year-old Colorado native, Bernhardt has years of Interior Department experience in several administrations. He's far more familiar with the department's inner workings than was outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the outset, though their policy preferences are similar.

"I can't think of an instance in the past year where I've done something where I would not be very confident that he and I were 100 percent on the same page on," Bernhardt told E&E News in an interview earlier this year.

"I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior," Trump tweeted this afternoon. "David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!"


Stylistically, the often soft-spoken Bernhardt can strike a marked contrast to Zinke, the former Navy SEAL whose combativeness recently flared when he publicly proclaimed a top House Democrat to be a drunkard.

But Bernhardt's alignment with Zinke on issues including endangered species protections, public lands and energy development also guarantees the policy clashes that dominated Zinke's rocky 23-month tenure will continue. His selection shows the Trump administration is not backing down.

Bernhardt's own documented track record as a lawyer or lobbyist for the likes of Delta Petroleum Corp., Noble Energy Inc. and California's sprawling Westlands Water District also provides a fresh target for the environmentalists, lawmakers and media investigators who dogged Zinke.

"The musical chairs that have become the hallmark of this administration mean that ... Trump is just replacing one scandal-plagued Secretary with the ultimate D.C. swamp creature and ex-lobbyist David Bernhardt," Chris Saeger, Western Values Project executive director, said in a statement.

Even before Bernhardt's selection, Saeger's group launched, which describes itself as documenting the potential conflicts of interest of the "ex-lobbyist who is too conflicted to be Interior secretary."

The Center for Western Priorities, another conservation group, late last year released its own report analyzing Interior policy decisions and proposals that have followed specific requests by former clients of Bernhardt (Greenwire, Dec. 17).

Both environmental groups prepared their anti-Bernhardt reports following Trump's Dec. 15, 2018, announcement via Twitter that Zinke would resign. The announcement set off a leadership scramble in which some within Interior speculated Bernhardt might actually prefer to stay as deputy.

Bernhardt took the reins as Interior's acting secretary Jan. 2.

The conflicts next will be played out at a Senate confirmation hearing that will almost certainly be livelier than if Trump had selected another Interior contender, outgoing Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. Forty-three Democrats voted against Bernhardt's confirmation in July 2017 as deputy secretary.

The incoming ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee through which Bernhardt's new nomination must pass, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was one of four members of his party, along with one independent, to support Bernhardt in last year's 53-43 vote (E&E Daily, July 25, 2017).

Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10Email:

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