It was a remarkable moment at the hearing for President Trump’s choice to run the Interior Department.
While many senators were skeptical of the former lobbyist's ties to the oil industry and other businesses, Sen. Ron Wyden lit into David Bernhardt. The Oregon Democrat accusing him of lying to his face about his commitment to ethics.
“You asked to come to my office to say you stood for strong ethics,” Wyden told Bernhardt, referring to their meeting last week. “A few hours after we met, I saw documents that show within the last two years you blocked the release of a Fish and Wildlife analysis of toxic chemicals.”
That Fish and Wildlife agency analysis, reported by the New York Times this week, found the use of two chemicals to kill pests also imperiled more than 1,200 endangered animals and plants. Bernhardt stopped the release of the analysis, referring it to lawyers within the department.
“You sound like just another corrupt official," Wyden told Bernhardt, whose children were in attendance during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
While Bernhard's confirmation is nearly guaranteed in the GOP-led Senate, the exchange underscores the opposition he may face from Senate Democrats.
The line of questioning revealed the potential questions Bernhardt could continue to face even if he gets the top job at Interior.
Wyden added that Bernhardt, who served at the agency under President George W. Bush before becoming a lobbyist, was "so conflicted" that “if you get confirmed, you’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many issues I don’t know how you will go about your day.”
In the hearing, Bernhardt explained he intervened because the analysis did not have a legal review, and he decided to “kick it over to career lawyers” because “you can’t ignore the law.” He added that he reviewed the document with “exactly the same standards” he would any other.
He also said he would comply with laws and ethics rules. Already in his time at Interior, he has “had to recuse himself from matters directly affecting at least 26 former clients to adhere to the Trump administration’s ethics requirements. His critics say he should have recused himself from far more," The Post's Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin report.
Other Senate Democrats grilled the nominee about the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore oil drilling and to relax legal protections for migrating birds that stop at spots in the United States.
As a former solicitor at the Interior Department during the Bush administration, Bernhardt brings considerable legal expertise to his current role. Perhaps nowhere is Bernhard’s particular experience more valuable than with the Endangered Species Act. Once, just before moving over to the solicitor’s office in 2005, Bernhardt brought the entire legislative history of the law with him to read on a beach vacation.
Now under Trump, Bernhardt is proposing a rule that would make it easier for development to take place in the habitats of endangered species.
Despite Democrats' concerns, Republicans were largely enthusiastic about the nominee, regarding Bernhardt as having “a level of experience and qualifications we rarely see,” according to Republican committee chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
She did, however, express concern during the hearing about the potential for conflicts at a department whose former leader, Ryan Zinke, had his own ethical troubles that received Justice Department scrutiny. “For whatever reason, you seem to have outside groups working against your nomination more than anyone else we’ve had in front of us,” Murkowski said.
This is not the first time Wyden has gone off against a leader of the Interior Department. In 2017, Wyden voted to confirm Zinke, a decision he said a year later he regretted because of what he saw as Zinke’s shortcomings in being a steward of public lands.
“I said I would support your nomination, and I did,” Wyden told Zinke during a hearing last March, nine months before the interior secretary resigned amid various ethics investigations. “I will tell you right now, as of today, it is one of the biggest regrets in my public service.”
Read more from The Post's Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin here:
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More from Bernhardt’s hearing:
- The nominee acknowledged human-caused climate change, “even as Interior attempts to roll back rules seeking to limit the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations," per Darryl and Juliet.
- “I recognize that climate is changing and that man is contributing to that,” Bernhardt said in response to questioning from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
- But he added: “What our scientists say is: Recognize that there’s no one single model or one single scenario that’s right.”
Meanwhile, two Democrats who chair House committees launched a probe into whether Bernhardt hides a daily schedule showing who he meets from the public. On Wednesday, The Post reported that lawmakers are examining the Interior Department’s practice of preparing “a daily card” with Bernhardt’s detailed schedule on a Google document but withholding that information from the public. Bernhardt’s practice is a departure from that of his predecessors, whose public calendars provided more detail on who they were meeting with inside and outside the agency.
— Make Lakes Great Again: During a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Trump said he supports the Great Lakes and vowed to fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, even after his latest budget proposal includes a 90 percent spending cut to the initiative, The Post's David Nakamura and Colby Itkowitz report. In fact, it is a program, popular with both congressional Republican and Democrats, that his administration has threatened to cut three years in a row. “I support the Great Lakes. Always have,” Trump said. “They’re beautiful. They're big. Very deep, record deepness, right?"
— Trump administration OKed firms to share nuclear energy tech with Saudi Arabia: The administration has issued seven authorizations since November 2017 to allow nuclear energy companies to share sensitive information with Saudi Arabia, even as the kingdom has not agreed to anti-proliferation terms for building U.S.-designed nuclear plants, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. “The Energy Department and State Department have not only kept the authorizations from the public but also refused to share information about them with congressional committees that have jurisdiction over nuclear proliferation and safety,” per the report. During a hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also questioned Energy Secretary Rick Perry about whether any authorizations were issued after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but Perry said he did not know.
— A bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state: House lawmakers unveiled legislation to make Puerto Rico the 51st state amid a mounting feud between President Trump and the U.S. territory’s officials over hurricane relief funding. The bill by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) is likely to spark a bigger debate about the island’s status as a U.S. territory as it continues to recover after Hurricane Maria, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. “Soto’s legislation is the first in Congress that would automatically make Puerto Rico a state, rather than call for additional statehood referendums on the island or allow admission only after certain conditions were met, according to a spokeswoman for the congressman,” Stein writes. “But it has little chance of becoming law anytime soon, given that the Republican-controlled Senate and White House are expected to oppose the measure.”
Meanwhile: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has been hitting back against attacks from the president. “If the bully gets close, I'll punch the bully in the mouth,” Rosselló said in an interview with CNN. “It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with courage.” “Rosselló's top aides told CNN that during a tense encounter at the White House on Wednesday they were warned by senior White House officials that representatives for the U.S. territory were pushing too hard to arrange a meeting aimed at discussing the island's dire situation with the president,” per the report. Trump has reportedly declined to schedule a meeting with the governor to discuss relief efforts.
— EPA says flooding hasn’t led to toxic release at Superfund sites: The agency said there have been no reported releases of toxic contaminants at any of the eight Superfund sites in flooded areas of Missouri, Nebraska or Iowa. And the EPA has not issued public health advisories or alerts and hasn’t tested the soil and water at those sites. Two sites in Nebraska and Missouri required immediate action to prevent the spread of contaminated ground water, two sites in Iowa had minor flooding but did not require agency action, and four sites were not affected by the floods, the Associated Press reports.
— And the first Democratic presidential debate site is...: Miami, the Democratic National Committee announced Thursday. The location for the two days of debates, set for late June in a state where severe weather, rising sea levels and toxic algae bloom symbolize the effects of the changing climate, could set the tone on the issue of climate change in the 2020 race. And while climate change may not have been a frequent topic during presidential debates in the last election, The Post’s Karen Tumulty pointed out she asked a question about the issue during a Democratic debate in Miami in 2016.
— The Doomsday Vault's home has already been affected by warming: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or “Doomsday Vault,” which holds an emergency supply of nearly a million seed samples from around the world, is supposed to be indestructible. But climate change has already affected the area, The Post’s Kayla Epstein reports. A report on climate change in the Svalbard archipelago found a warming of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius from 1971 to 2017. The report’s projections for future changes from a period of 1971-2000 until 2071-2100 also show that under “medium to high scenarios for future climate emissions,” the annual air temperature will surge by about 10 degrees Celsius under high emissions and 7 degrees Celsius under medium emissions. “The vault is probably going to be okay. But its occasional troubles put a focus on a much bigger problem: Its home is undergoing rapid change thanks to the warming climate,” Epstein writes.
Unreasonably hot: Here's a sampling (not complete) of March and seasonal all-time record high temps that have been set in the past few days in Alaska and northwest Canada. H/T @Pat_wx for great tweets on the Canadian records. #Arctic #akwx #ntwx #ykwx @Climatologist49 @DaveSnider pic.twitter.com/g1uFLVAzPb— Rick Thoman (@AlaskaWx) March 20, 2019
— Man it's a hot one: Alaska is experiencing an unusual stretch of high temperatures, with parts of the state set to finish the month more than 20 degrees above average, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. He adds that’s an “extreme deviation from the norm in U.S. weather records.” For the first time on record this early in the year, temperatures in interior regions of Alaska remained above freezing for multiple nights in a row. “This is just the latest round in a longer-term episode of acute and persistent warmth across the state and the Arctic region,” he adds. “Yet this round is unusual and historic, the likes never observed over such a long stretch at this time of year.”
— Post-winter snowmelt in California: After bountiful winter snowfall, California’s water infrastructure could be tested as that snow starts to melt. “Despite snowpack in the Sierra Nevada measuring 153 percent above normal, it should be noted that experts aren’t expecting anything too terrible for California,” Mike Branom writes for The Post. “Still, impact is assured from so much water trickling down mountainsides into streams and creeks, eventually joining a river before being captured in a reservoir or flowing all the way to the Pacific Ocean … The spillway at Oroville Dam, the United States’ tallest, is about to get tested for the first time since it nearly failed with catastrophic results two years ago.”
Very important that OPEC increase the flow of Oil. World Markets are fragile, price of Oil getting too high. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2019
— Oil watch: Trump urged the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in a tweet to produce more oil because crude prices are getting “too high.” “Trump’s latest tweet comes as OPEC and a group of allies led by Russia are cutting production following a collapse in oil prices in the final months of 2018,” CNBC reports. “The output curbs by the so-called OPEC group have played a major part in the rebound in the oil market this year.” Trump’s morning missive was just his latest criticism of the group. He tweeted urging OPEC last month to “relax and take it easy” because the “world cannot take a price hike.” “We are taking is easy,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih told CNBC in response.
— The biggest solar-powered battery: Florida Power & Light, a major utility in the state, announced plans to build the world’s largest solar-powered battery, which will acquire electricity from solar panels to distribute the power during times of high demand. The company said it’s expecting the battery to be operational by 2021, the Wall Street Journal reports, but didn’t say what the cost of the project will be. When fully charged, FPL said the battery will provide 409 megawatts of electricity for two hours. The project is also meant to help expedite the shuttering of two existing fossil fuel plants.
- RealClearPolitics hosts an event on grid access, affordability and fuel diversity.
— "Swamp creature" attends Capitol Hill hearing: A demonstrator wearing a "Creature from the Black Lagoon"-style creature mask sat over Bernhardt's shoulder silently protesting during his Thursday confirmation hearing. “Activists from the Clean Water Fund, Environment America and Public Citizen staged the demonstration to draw attention to Bernhardt’s ‘long list of conflicts of interest with the oil & gas industry, and highlighting his historic anti-environmental past,’ the groups said in a statement, as The Post’s Felicia Sonmez reports.