Trump taps former oil lobbyist to lead Interior

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President Donald Trump, center, Vice President Mike Pence, left, escorted by Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, right, visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is nominating David Bernhardt to be secretary of the Interior Department, a move that puts a former oil lobbyist on track to take over the agency.

If confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt, the deputy secretary, would succeed Whitefish resident Ryan Zinke at the helm of the Interior, an $11 billion agency that oversees drilling, grazing and other activities on public land. Bernhardt has been acting secretary since Zinke left the Trump administration in January amid mounting federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.

Trump announced the nomination Monday on Twitter. The move echoes Trump’s decision to put a politically savvy lawyer in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency after the departure of the president’s scandal-plagued first EPA chief, Scott Pruitt.

Like Zinke, Bernhardt is expected to continue charting a pro-energy course at Interior, having already played a leading role in shaping department policies to expand drilling, make sure economics are factored into endangered species decisions and alter the way the government analyzes the environmental consequences of projects.

As a natural resources lawyer, most of Bernhardt’s professional life has been tied to Interior — either working inside the agency or lobbying it from the outside. After a stint at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt went to work for former President George W. Bush’s Interior Department in 2001, eventually becoming the agency’s top lawyer in 2006.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Bernhardt returned to his old firm, where he worked on behalf of oil companies and developers with business before his former agency. Bernhardt’s client list included affiliates of Noble Energy Inc., a major Gulf of Mexico oil producer; Equinor ASA, the Norwegian company seeking to build a wind farm off the New York coast; and Halliburton Co., the world’s largest oilfield services provider.

Unlike Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL who rode a horse to the Interior Department’s offices on his first day on the job and had a secretarial flag hoisted whenever he was inside the agency’s headquarters, Bernhardt, 49, avoids the spotlight. His supporters and critics alike describe him as a smart, hard-working lawyer who strategically and methodically advances his goals, often finding ways to use the bureaucracy to his advantage.

Environmentalists blasted the move Monday.

“Trump has once again nominated a corrupt industry hack to lead a critical federal agency,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager for Friends of the Earth. “Instead of another puppet for corporate polluters, Americans want real leaders who will protect our public lands, natural resources and cultural heritage.”

Ranchers signaled their immediate support, with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issuing a statement saying Bernhardt “understands the concerns of cattle producers.”

One of Bernhardt’s top priorities at Interior has been revamping the way the U.S. protects vulnerable animals under the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists blasted a Trump proposal championed by Bernhardt to allow economic considerations to factor into wildlife protection decisions under the law. But Bernhardt has defended the approach, arguing that the government has too often pursued protections without regard for the potential cost to landowners and businesses.

Bernhardt would be on the front line of Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda. The Interior Department is weighing plans to expand the sale of offshore oil and gas leases in U.S. waters and, under Trump, has sought to propel energy development on public land too. The department is preparing to sell drilling rights in a 1.6-million-acre piece of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by a law Congress passed in 2017.

Interior Department agencies also play a lead role interacting with Native American tribes, issuing rights for grazing on public lands and considering whether animals should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

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