David Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee for deputy interior secretary, has been described as “an excellent choice” by supporters and “a walking conflict of interest” by opponents. The full Senate is set to vote on his nomination Monday.
Bernhardt wouldn’t be new to the Interior Department. He served under President George W. Bush as solicitor, the third-ranking position at the department, and as a legal officer. But more recently, he worked for a lobbying firm representing energy interests and a water district.
That role has led to controversy. A nonprofit group, Campaign for Accountability, claims that Bernhardt continued to lobby for the Westlands Water District in California after withdrawing his registration as a lobbyist in November. In a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate the claim, the group claims Bernhardt edited a draft executive order for then-President-elect Donald Trump involving water issues that stood to benefit Westlands Water.
Campaign for Accountability said Bernhardt continued to work with Westlands Water into January. The allegation doesn’t claim that Bernhardt was paid for any work conducted after deactivating his registration, but Daniel Stevens, executive director of the group, said: “I don’t think that matters. He’s still advancing the agenda of the group.” Stevens said the campaign hasn’t gotten a response from the Justice Department and doesn’t expect to. “We’d probably be the last people to know,” he said. “They would just conduct an investigation without telling us.”
Bernhardt’s nomination was sent to the Senate floor by the Energy Committee on a mostly party-line 14-to-9 vote. Republicans praised the nominee.
“He’s somebody who is going to stand up for the environment to protect our great outdoors,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said in a video statement posted to Twitter in June, “somebody I know who will be a champion for Colorado values when it comes to protecting our environment for the next generation.”
Bernhardt is a Colorado native from the town of Rifle, “the self-proclaimed ‘Oil Shale Capital of the World,’ ” he wrote in his submitted committee testimony. He wrote that Rifle “suffered a dramatic economic downturn during the mid-1980s energy bust” that negatively affected him and his family but that he remains committed to energy development.
It’s that pursuit that worried Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who cited his concern about the Florida shoreline. Nelson said he was concerned that Bernhardt would support Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s attempt to grant oil drilling leases off the coast of Florida.
“When it comes to the eastern gulf, there is no good way to increase offshore production while balancing environmental concerns,” Nelson said to the Bradenton Herald. “And secondly, as I have explained time and time again, it makes no sense to drill in an area that is critically important to the United States military.”
Since Bernhardt’s committee hearing in May, Zinke has pushed to allow drilling in the Arctic, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Zinke called Bernhardt’s nomination “an excellent choice.”
In his testimony, Bernhardt said he admired the secretary’s leadership: “In a short period of time, Secretary Zinke has decisively initiated efforts to advance conservation stewardship, improve game and habitat management, and increase outdoor recreation.
“I look forward to the opportunity to serve with him.”