He acknowledged climate change is real. He acknowledged that humans are contributing to it.
So why, Democratic lawmakers asked David Bernhardt, isn't he doing more to address global warming?
Apparently, because Congress hasn't told him to.
During his first testimony to Congress since becoming interior secretary, Bernhardt said it is up to lawmakers to direct bureaucrats like himself to address the causes and effects of warming globally.
The punt back to lawmakers is likely to frustrate House Democrats who are trying to hold the administration's feet to the fire on climate change, since they know that any significant climate-related legislation to emerge from their chamber is likely to be rejected by either the president or the GOP-controlled Senate. At the same time, Democrats have only passed a single climate bill — one keeping the United States in the Paris climate accord — since taking the the majority.
The exchange came when Democrats on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department's budget pressed the Trump Cabinet official about why his department isn't doing more to assess and mitigate the effects of warming temperatures, acidifying oceans and other effects of climate change over the vast lands and waters stewarded by the Interior Department.
“Isn’t this really your job?” asked Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
Bernhardt pushed back against the assertion, arguing he has no legal obligation to act in response to climate change. "My perspective on this is probably a little different than yours," he said.
He noted that of more than 600 instances in the law mandating the interior secretary to take some action, none tell him that he "shall," as is the legal parlance, manage federal lands to stop global warming.
"There's no 'shalls,' " Bernhardt said. "You guys come up with the 'shalls.' "
Pingee responded by asking Bernhardt to identify any legal barriers to acting on climate change. "If there’s something legally stopping you, then we’re Congress,” she said. "We make the laws."
It is a lawyerly defense Bernhardt has turned to before, including in an interview last year with The Washington Post. Yet law or no law, climate change remains a threat to the land the Interior Department is tasked with overseeing.
In the national park system alone, warming temperatures threaten to undermine the very nature of many popular tourist spots, such as by melting the glaciers of Montana's Glacier National Park and imperilling the iconic Joshua trees of California's Joshua Tree National Park.
And the department holds considerable sway of the United States' overall contributions to climate change. A U.S. Geological Survey study published last year found that a quarter of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions came from the extracting and burning of fossil fuels from federal lands.
Yet in the more than two years Donald Trump has been president, the Interior Department has sought to undo much of the previous administration's efforts to slow the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere undergirding that change.
Its action include rolling back rules designed to reduce the release of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, from oil and natural gas wells and lifting a moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands.
During the hearing, Bernhardt said his department does not plan on easing up on oil and gas drilling on public lands when asked by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, if a recent United Nations report on the possible extinction of up to 1 million species worldwide gives him pause.
"Are we going to stop oil and gas development because of this report? The answer to that is no," he said, again noting it is up to Congress to decide what the government does or does not allow on federal lands.
But when it came to the issue of drilling for oil and gas off the coasts of states outside the Gulf of Mexico, Bernhardt suggested he would give deference to local leaders.
"I’m not aware of a single lease that was ever developed over the opposition of a state,” he said.
The department has put on pause plans to expand offshore drilling across the U.S. continental shelf after a recent federal court ruled against the Trump administration's effort to lift a current drilling ban in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. That decision came amid stiff opposition to offshore drilling from both Democratic and Republican politicians along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
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— More Interior Department drama: House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent letters urging a group of current and former Trump administration officials to provide information to the committee related to ongoing investigations, threatening to withhold salaries from anyone who seeks to hamper investigations. One letter threatened the salaries of any Interior officials that try to stop lawmakers from interviewing agency staff about whether Bernhardt complied with federal record-keeping laws.
— Fed prepares for climate risks to banks: Federal Reserve Jerome Powell told lawmakers in a letter last month the central bank has aimed to “prepare financial institutions for severe weather events,” to make sure banks are resilient to climate-related risks, the Wall Street Journal reports. That echoes comments the central banker made while testifying before Congress in late February, in which he said climate-risks are mostly a matter of bank supervision and not actual monetary policy.
— EPA must enforce Obama-era methane regulations, judge says: A federal judge in California has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to begin enforcing methane gas emission regulations that were established in 2016, E&E News reports. U.S . District Judge Haywood Gilliam of Oakland ruled the Trump administration has been illegally delaying action to limit pollutants emitted from landfills across the country, in violation of the Clean Air Act.
Who's winning in California vs. Trump? Gilliam’s ruling is just the latest in a slew of environmental cases California has brought against the administration. And the Los Angeles Times reports the state is winning in nearly all of its efforts.
— The stalemate over Puerto Rico disaster funding gets worse: And it's because of the border wall. The Trump administration is looking to add emergency border funding to a disaster aid bill, a new obstacle that has further complicated ongoing negotiations over the multibillion-dollar disaster legislation, The Post’s Erica Werner reports. An ongoing feud between the president and congressional Democrats over Puerto Rico spending has already stalled negotiations. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) made a plea this week to Vice President Pence, who joined Senate Republicans for a closed-door lunch to talk about the disaster bill, that the introduction of a new spending element could tangle negotiations further.
— The partisan gulf in Congress over climate: There’s a stark contrast between how often Democratic and Republican lawmakers talk about climate change, The Post’s Philip Bump writes, compiling data from ProPublica to illustrate mentions of “climate” in congressional statements. The above graphic shows how that shakes out.
By contrast, Republican mentions of the “Green New Deal” outweigh those by Democrats, as Bump notes numerous Republican statements have been made to “express skepticism about the need to address the problem.”
— Starups targeting climate change struggle to rake in funding: The founder of the digital thermostat company Nest has met some obstacles in his mission to invest in start-up companies looking to tackle climate change. For one, the New York Times reports, not many venture capitalists have joined him in his quest to support such companies. Canadian company Carbon Engineering, which has been moving forward with carbon capture technology, is one company that has had success in raising money. But the Times writes the “current wave of internet-focused start-ups going public, and reaping billions of dollars for investors, has hardened the bias against so-called hard technology…In the time it took Carbon Engineering to raise one round of $68 million, Slack, a messaging company founded the same year, has raised more than 10 times as much and is now preparing for an initial public offering that could value it at nearly $20 billion.”
— Trump’s steel tariffs cost U.S. consumers $900,000 for every job created: That's according to an analysis by experts at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The reason it’s so high is that steel is a very capital-intensive industry. There are not many workers,” Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute who did the cost calculation, told The Post’s Heather Long. Some Republicans and business leaders had hoped the president would have already removed the tariffs, and congressional Republicans have continued to pressure the administration to remove them “at least on Canada and Mexico, which are major feeders of metals to the United States,” Long adds.
— "They let me go": Hemanth Kappanna, an engineer who was part of a team of students who helped expose Volkswagen’s efforts to lie about diesel car emissions in 2013, was one of about 4,000 workers at General Motors who were recently laid off, the New York Times reports. On Tuesday, Volkswagen’s Porsche division announced it agreed to a 535 million euro, or $600 million, fine after German officials accused the car maker of selling almost 100,000 diesel SUVs with software meant to conceal excess emissions. Just a few months before, Kappanna, whose most recent role at G.M. was to communicate with the EPA about the company’s emissions technology, was called into a conference room to be let go. He received a severance package with two months of pay and a one-way ticket to India, where he returned soon after because he couldn’t find work before his 60-day grace period expired.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation holds a hearing on “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maritime Infrastructure Vulnerabilities in an Emerging Arctic."
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on banning asbestos.
— "Who gets excited about new trade routes?" Late-night talk show host Seth Meyers lit into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for suggesting that the melting of the Arctic would be good for trade since it would open up new sea routes. "That's like being excited that your house burned down because now you can see your pool from the driveway."