David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, spoke before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department last week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump’s pick for Interior Department secretary, former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt, was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by a 14-6 vote Thursday.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, joined 11 Republicans in passing Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. If approved, Bernhardt would ascend from his current acting secretary role to take formal control of an agency that oversees 700 million acres of public land and the gas and mineral resources that lie beneath it.

Bernhardt’s ability to manage those resources without bias toward the oil industry and water utilities he once represented was questioned by skeptical Democrats on the committee as well as conservationists.

But Republicans led by committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said the nominee’s deep understanding of an agency he worked for as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration and his conduct over the past few months prove that he is more qualified for the position.

“I will work closely with Chairman Murkowski and my colleagues to ensure Mr. Bernhardt commits to the highest standards of ethics, not just in the letter of the law but truly the spirit of the law,” Manchin said.

Thursday’s vote reflected little of the contentious questioning of Bernhardt during a confirmation hearing the week before. In that meeting, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the nominee was a liar and called him corrupt.

Wyden said Bernhardt came to his office and assured him that he would follow ethics rules only to be the subject of a newspaper article that said Bernhardt intervened on behalf of the oil industry and others to stop a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analysis that said certain toxic pesticides used by such businesses threatened endangered animals.


A Greenpeace USA activist slipped on a "Swamp Thing" mask to protest David Bernhardt's nomination at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing March 28. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The actions “make you sound like just another corrupt official,” Wyden said.

Wyden’s statement was immediately countered by Bernhardt’s friend and fellow Coloradan, Sen. Cory Gardner (R), who said Democrats exhibited a double standard by supporting former interior secretary and petroleum engineer Sally Jewell but not Bernhardt.

“Instead of being portrayed as a competent lawyer who represents clients zealously and ably, you are painted as compromised and in pockets of industry,” Gardner said.

The acrimony of last week’s hearing overflowed into the audience, where a woman donned a swamp creature mask to signal Bernhardt is a member of the Washington swamp of lobbyists.

Police quickly escorted the woman from the hearing room, and Bernhardt continued his opening statement.

“It’s disappointing that the committee rushed to vote on Bernhardt’s nomination despite new revelations of a possible ethics investigation and troubling discrepancies involving David Bernhardt’s calendars and work as a lobbyist,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group.