with Paulina Firozi


Ever since the resignation in July of Scott Pruitt from the Environmental Protection Agency, environmentalists angry at the Trump administration's pro-fossil-fuel push have aimed their ire at Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

But behind the scene at Interior, which manages one-fifth of the America's landmass, Zinke's No. 2 is quietly making his mark.  On Monday, my colleague Juliet Eilperin published an in-depth profile of the deputy secretary at the department, David Bernhardt.

Bernhardt dives into the policy weeds at Interior in ways Zinke does not. He has done so ever since serving at Interior during the George W. Bush administration:

When Bernhardt got ready to move over to Interior’s solicitor’s office in 2005, he knew he was going to spend much of his time dealing with the Endangered Species Act. As he recounted in a speech at the Heritage Foundation this fall, 'I was a little nervous.'

So he asked his aides for the entire legislative history of the act, just before leaving for a vacation at Dewey Beach, Del. with his wife and two young kids. They brought him 10 volumes bound in deep red covers over faded pages. They filled up nearly his entire trunk.

When he arrived at Dewey, Bernhardt told his wife, 'I’m not going to leave the house the entire time. I’m going to study the entire legislative history of the Endangered Species Act.'


As one of the main architects of Trump’s energy and public lands agenda, he knows how to check the boxes and follow the rules. Nowhere is that clearer than when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, which he mastered during that long-ago beach vacation. Last year, Bernhardt brought together top career officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service with political appointees to discuss how to retool Endangered Species Act regulations and gave them a 30-day deadline to produce a draft.

The proposed rule, if enacted, could mark the biggest change to federal endangered species policy in decades, making it easier for development to take place in imperiled species’ habitats.

Between his stints in the Bush and Trump administrations, however, Bernhardt worked for so many clients as a lobbyist that he now carries around a small card listing all his potential conflicts of interests:

As a partner at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Bernhardt represented clients such as the Westlands Water District, which provides water to California farmers. Water is Westlands’ lifeblood, but it has to compete with state and federal officials’ push to supply it to municipalities and imperiled species as well. Bernhardt represented Westlands when it unsuccessfully sued Interior over the Endangered Species Act, and sat on the board of a conservative group connected to the water district, CESAR, that has challenged federal scientific findings on endangered species such as California’s delta smelt.

On Aug. 17, two weeks after Bernhardt’s recusal over Westlands Water District expired, Zinke tasked him with drafting a new plan for managing federal and state water supplies there. Interior and California officials have been tight-lipped about ongoing negotiations, but Bernhardt and his colleagues have made clear they hope to overhaul existing agreements to provide more water to agricultural interests.


“Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a critic of DOI’s approach to California water issues. “The recusal was a sham, and the fact that they created this plan to spring into action on behalf of all their special interests after his one-year recusal expired doesn’t surprise anyone.”

Westlands, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, is one of four organizations from which Bernhardt is no longer recused. These include North Dakota’s Garrison Diversion Conservancy District and Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District. And as Bernhardt explained, just because he represented a specific company doesn’t mean he can’t make policy decisions affecting its industry.

“So, truthfully, you can fully meet your ethical requirements appropriately and still serve the department,” Bernhardt said. 

Read Eilperin's entire piece here:

Authorities searched for victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., north of Sacramento, the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state. (Jorge Ribas, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

— California is burning: Early on the morning of Nov. 8, minutes before a fire was first reported, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. high-voltage power line malfunctioned, wrote the Los Angeles Times in this devastating and deeply reported piece on how the deadly Camp Fire progressed in the region. “By sunset, the fire had swept 19 miles over an entire mountain, surprising, trapping, terrifying and killing — the most destructive and deadliest in California history... The fire moved so fast — faster than emergency officials grasped, faster than evacuation orders could be acted on — consuming entire neighborhoods before people could flee.”

Death toll: It has risen to 76 and the list of people unaccounted for is now at 1,276, The Post’s Tim Craig, Annie Gowen and Francis Stead Sellers report. “The astonishing tally raised fears that the death toll would rise exponentially,” they write. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea is urging "people to look at the list and contact the sheriff’s office if they see their name on the list."

When asked Nov. 17 if the California wildfires have changed his opinion on climate change, President Trump said, "No. I want great climate." (The Washington Post)

Trump tours the state: The president surveyed the devastation over the weekend and pledged the federal government would help Californians rebuild. Even still, he criticized the state, blaming the deadly blazes on poor forest management.

“Trump’s one-day visit to the state thrust him into a role of uniter and consoler that he has never occupied comfortably,” The Post’s Jenna Portnoy and Anne Gearan report. “The president seemed moved by the scale of the loss around him and was solicitous of Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom (D). But he said more about the firefighters and other rescuers deployed to the fire than about the victims.”

“I want great climate”: The president also said the fires did not change his views on climate change. “I want great climate," he said. "We’re going to have that. And we’re going to have forests that are very safe. Because we can’t go through this ever year.”

President Trump visited Paradise, Calif., Nov. 17 and suggested America could prevent future wildfires by "raking and cleaning" forests like Finland does. (The White House)

— Trump says Californians should rake forests: Criticizing California’s forest management, Trump suggested that the state should be following Finland's forest management example. “You look at other countries where they do it differently and it’s a whole different story,” Trump said. “I was with the president of Finland and he said: ‘We have a much different — we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation, and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. And they don’t have any problem.”

What is Trump saying!? “His general sentiment is correct — that we need to manage fuels,” Yana Valachovic a forest adviser with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension program told The Post’s Avi Selk. “And yeah, managing that pine litter adjacent to our homes and buildings is super important. … But the reality is, to manage every little bit of fuel with a rake is not practical.”

Finland responds: Finnish President Sauli Niinisto disputed Trump’s claim. “Niinisto said their conversation focused on the California wildfires and the surveillance system Finland uses to monitor forests for fires,” the Associated Press reports. “He remembered telling Trump ‘We take care of our forests,’ but couldn’t recall raking coming up.”

The Los Angeles Times adds “that burned Paradise and parts of Southern California are significantly different from the forest fires that hit Finland last year.”


— Andrew Wheeler gets a promotion: Trump announced he plans to nominate Wheeler, who has served as the EPA’s acting administrator since July, as Pruitt's official replacement.

What the announcement means: It’s a “move that would ensure a continued deregulatory push at the agency,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and  Eilperin report. “During his brief tenure as the EPA’s acting chief, Wheeler has proved far different from the man he replaced. Where Pruitt was a politician who appeared to enjoy the limelight and trappings of Cabinet life, Wheeler has long worked behind the scenes on energy and environmental policy and generally avoids public attention.” But what Wheeler and Pruitt have in common is a "zeal to deregulate."

What the Senate is saying:

  • Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was among the several Senate Democrats to question Wheeler's nomination. “I have a friend who, when asked how he’s doing, always says, ‘Compared to what?’ Compared to Administrator Pruitt, Mr. Wheeler is better. Compared to Administrators Ruckelshaus or Whitman, he’s not doing nearly as well," Carper said in a statement.
  • But James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), for whom Wheeler worked when the senator led that committee, called his old employee "the perfect choice to lead the EPA."

— Another climate protest on Capitol Hill: Dozens of young climate protesters organized by the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group, visited the office of Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) on Friday to push for aggressive plans on climate policy, Politico reports. Pallone, poised to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said he agrees with the “Green New Deal” proposed by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “But he stopped short of committing to the activists' demand that he swear off campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal companies, and he disputed how they categorized some of the contributions he has received from fossil fuel interests,” per the report. 

— House votes to delist gray wolves: With their days in control of the chamber numbered, House Republicans passed a bill, 196-180, to end Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf and prohibit federal judicial review of the legislation.

The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), say the wolves have recovered enough to be delisted, according to the Spokesman-Review, though several environmental disagree with that notion. “By delisting the gray wolf, we can allow people in our state and community to use science-based management practices that will benefit both our endangered and native animals while protecting farmers and ranchers,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. The bill now heads to the Senate.


— Crab fishers sue oil companies: A commercial fishing group on the West Coast has filed a climate lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court against 30 fossil fuel companies over losses resulting from the changing climate. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations “seeks damages on behalf of crab fishers, their businesses and families, and local communities in California and Oregon,” Inside Climate News reports. “It describes losses caused by the closing of crab fishing waters over the past four years because of algae blooms in the warming Pacific waters, and warns that these closures will keep happening as warming continues.”

— Virginia governor removes two board members ahead of crucial vote on pipeline project: The change to the composition of the Air Pollution Control Board happened after the panel last week delayed a vote on the project, which some hoped meant it would take time to review environmental impact arguments.

“Both Samuel A. Bleicher of Arlington and Rebecca R. Rubin of Fredericksburg were among those who had raised questions last week about the location and safety of the compressor station,” The Post's Gregory S. Schneider reports. The office of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) "acknowledged Thursday night that the governor was replacing them but denied that it had anything to do with the pipeline issue.”



  • Brookings Institution holds an event on “The new dynamics of global energy and climate." 

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing to on addressing America’s surface transportation infrastructure needs on Nov. 28.

— The animals who survived the flames: “Over the past week, first responders have carried thousands of injured animals out of the ashes to emergency veterinary hospitals,” The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “Of the nearly 2,000 animals the North Valley Animal Disaster Group has taken into its shelters, most have been cats. But there have been hundreds of dogs, rabbits and chickens and dozens of larger animals such as horses, goats, sheep and cows.”