House Democrats grilled Interior Secretary David Bernhardt about what his department is doing to address the causes and effects of climate change, noting that levels of carbon dioxide just hit their highest in human history.
His response? “I haven’t lost any sleep over it.”
The exchange is the latest escalation between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration over what responsibility the Interior Department, which oversees more than 400 million acres of federal lands, bears in blunting a worldwide problem such as global warming. It came amid a barrage of legal citations from Democrats who claimed that current law compels the leader of the department to protect public lands from its impacts.
The remark came as Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) pressed Bernhardt about how concerned, on a scale of 1 to 10, he was about the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eclipsing 415 parts per million, as recorded by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
“Okay, so you're a zero or a one, is that it?” Cartwright said in response.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) gave Bernhardt the chance to expand on his comment, saying that for climate scientists it is a “hair-on-fire crisis.”
“It’s one of those clips of testimony that will reverberate,” he said. “People will look back to what you said.”
Indeed, after the hearing, environmental groups shared widely on social media videos of Bernhardt's “sleep” comment.
In response, Bernhardt said: “I absolutely care that our climate is changing and that we need to factor that into our thinking. I absolutely believe that. And I've said that over and over and over.”
He noted that among developed nations, the United States is “number one” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The hearing Wednesday in front of the House Natural Resources Committee, ostensibly to discuss the Trump administration's budget proposal for the department, was Bernhardt's second since being confirmed as interior secretary.
Last week in front of a House Appropriations subcommittee, Bernhardt punted the climate issue to Congress, telling members it was up to them to pass legislation compelling him to reduce emissions from public lands. Between 2005 and 2014, a quarter of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions came from the extracting and burning of fossil fuels from federal lands.
“There's no 'shalls,' " Bernhardt said, referring to the word in law that indicates a legally binding requirement. “You guys come up with the 'shalls.' "
In the intervening days, House Democrats had clearly dusted off law books.
During the hearing, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) chided the Trump administration for rolling back an Obama-era rule that sought to limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, released by oil and gas wells on the Bureau of Land Management lands.
And another Democrat, Mike Levin of California, rattled off four laws that, for example, compel the interior secretary to ensure that national parks are “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” and to “take any action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation” to BLM areas.
Bernhardt suggests the language in those laws did not direct him to do anything specific in response to climate change, such as stop leasing land for coal, oil or natural gas extraction.
“What I specifically said is you haven’t given me any direction to stop any particular activity,” he said.
John Leshy, interior solicitor under President Clinton, said that the legal language authorizing the government's land management programs is “necessarily general.”
“I give Bernhardt credit,” Leshy told The Post. “He's a wily guy.”
Leshy said Levin could also have mentioned the Endangered Species Act, which compels the interior secretary to use the “best available” science to determine whether a plant or animal is under threat of extinction.
On the dangers of climate change to biodiversity, he said, “the science is increasingly clear.”
At one point in yesterday's hearing, Democrats got Bernhardt to acknowledge that some laws — including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires agencies to evaluate the environmental impact of their actions — compel him to take climate change into account when managing lands.
“Certainly, NEPA would be one to them.”
Correction: The original version of this story referred to California Rep. Mike Levin as Mark Levin.
The Trump administration’s attitude to climate change, and our country's fate, in one sentence from @SecBernhardt: "I haven't lost any sleep over it."— Natural Resources Committee (@NRDems) May 15, 2019
They don't care. Thanks to @RepCartwright, we don’t have to guess any more.
RT if you want our leaders to #ActOnClimate. pic.twitter.com/JmZqH3Or0j
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— Controversial mining leases renewed: BLM has renewed two federal minerals leases for a proposed copper-nickel mine by Minnesota mining company Twin Metals. The controversial decision follows a years-long clash over opening the state to minerals mining, the Star Tribune reports. The leases were ended by the Obama administration in 2016 over concerns about the environmental risks of mining near a protected wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
- Trump administration touts economic benefit of new mining: “Mining on public lands balances conservation . . . with the need to produce minerals that add value to the lives of all Americans by providing raw materials used in the manufacture of medical aids, automobiles, smartphones and computers, and household appliances,” said Joe Balash, the interior's assistant secretary for land and minerals management.
- But Minnesota lawmakers are gearing up for a fight: "Every sulfide-ore mine has failed to contain pollution and has affected the surrounding water quality," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). "Once polluted, this incredible landscape and its wildlife will never been the same."
— 2020 watch: Two Democratic presidential candidates, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, are out this week with new climate policies.
- Warren: In a post on Medium, Warren laid out a plan requiring the Pentagon to reach net-zero carbon emissions for its infrastructure and non-combat bases by 2030. Her plan also calls for creating a “dedicated source of funding to adapt our bases in the United States and around the world." It also targets contractors hired by the Defense Department, proposing that any contractor that doesn't reach the net-zero emissions mark pay 1 percent of the value of the contract, which would be used to “to invest directly in making our military infrastructure more resilient.”
- Inslee: The governor is set to announce this morning the latest part of his climate agenda during a visit to the D.C. Water Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. His “Evergreen Economy Plan” looks to create about $9 trillion of investment in a clean energy economy with spending on manufacturing, sustainable infrastructure and the development and deployment of new technology, and aims to create 8 million jobs over the next decade.
— A plan to put up border wall through protected lands: The federal government is looking to replace barriers across 100 miles of the southern border with Mexico in California and Arizona, including through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the Associated Press reports, citing environmental advocates and government documents.
The refuge specifically is meant to provide a designated home for 275 wildlife species. The report follows a move by the Department of Homeland Security to waive numerous laws in order to build more border wall. “The Trump administration just ignored bedrock environmental and public health laws to plow a disastrous border wall through protected, spectacular wildlands,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Laiken Jordahl told the AP.
— "So you think we can innovate our way out of this?" The House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday hearing on climate change was the first to focus on the issue in a dozen years, the Washington Examiner reports, and lawmakers discussed various topics, including a carbon tax and clean energy.
During the hearing, Republican members also acknowledged there’s been a shift in rhetoric on the issue from their party. “We have gone from full of claims of [being] climate deniers to now we seem to be progress deniers,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said, suggesting Democrats haven’t appreciated the shift. “We are making progress. Is it enough? Absolutely not. But we can learn from what’s brought us that progress to solve the challenge ahead of us, which is real.”
But: Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) meanwhile, dismissed what he called “happy talk” about progress. “There was no acknowledgment about the terrible [climate change] impacts that are getting worse, and the Trump administration's concerted effort to make it even worse. So you think we can innovate our way out of this? We are on a path that is going to be very grim.”
— New York's pipeline predicament: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has until Thursday to decide whether to approve a proposed pipeline that would connect natural gas fields in Pennsylvania to New Jersey and New York. The pipeline has been at the center of debate about the state’s energy future, the New York Times reports.
Environmental advocates are worried about the impact on vulnerable ecosystems and establishing a reliance on fossil fuels as some New Yorkers look toward pushing renewable energy sources. “While the pipeline has not attracted anywhere near the attention of the Keystone XL or Dakota Access pipelines in the Great Plains region, which carry oil, supporters and opponents alike said the gas project could be similarly consequential,” the Times reports.
— PG&E’s wildfire woes: California state fire officials have concluded that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. equipment is to blame for the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in November and was the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. According to investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the deadly blaze was sparked by electrical transmission lines controlled by the state’s largest utility and located in the community of Pulga, The Post’s Michael Brice-Saddler reports. In February, the company acknowledged it is “probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp fire.”
— An “an invisible cost” to deadly fires: Fire officials spoke to state lawmakers at a joint California Senate and Assembly hearing this week about the toll frequent deadly fires are having on firefighters and their mental health, as one fire captain from Sacramento called it an “invisible cost that’s rarely discussed.”
In California alone, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reports there have been 46 firefighter and emergency medical worker suicides in the past five years. Across the country, there have been 33 firefighter and emergency medical personnel suicides this year, E&E News reports. “At the hearing, fire officials said they needed more mental health support for emergency workers, both in the field during events and after the fires. They also said they needed more fire suppression personnel overall.”
— A trade-off for fast-growing trees: Although certain types of plants and trees could experience accelerated growth as a result of higher temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, a new study suggests those same trees could die faster, too. That means even as some experts say faster-growing trees could help combat global warming by drawing carbon in and storing the gas at higher rates, a new study in Nature Communications found “faster-growing trees also die younger, meaning the carbon they store goes back into the atmosphere more quickly,” E&E News reports.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds an oversight hearing on Oil and Gas Development: Impacts of Water Pollution Above and Below Ground.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds an oversight hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee holds a hearing to examine the Energy Department’s carbon capture, utilization, and storage programs and to receive testimony on legislation.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event on EPA’s role in building critical infrastructure with EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler.
— “You might wonder why there are people in swamp creature outfits behind you”: For the second time, demonstrators wearing swamp creature masks sat in while the interior secretary testified before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The protesters are part of environmental activist group Clean Water Action.
"You might wonder why there are people in Swamp Creature outfits behind you – the public has real concerns about your work!" – Rep. @MikeLevinCA— Wilderness Society 🌳 (@Wilderness) May 15, 2019
Head of @Interior, oil lobbyist Sec. Bernhardt couldn't care less about prioritizing #climate action or putting #PeopleOverPolluters. pic.twitter.com/K7su5mOJVE