Democrats did not hold back during acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing in the Senate on Thursday.
Despite Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, opening the hearing by asking Bernhardt about how he plans to handle ethics and conflicts both for himself and the department if confirmed, Democratic Senators on the committee questioned Bernhardt about his priorities and conduct since joining Interior, insinuating that his lobbying ties were influencing his policy decisions at the Department.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) questioned Bernhardt about a decision he made to block the release of a US Fish and Wildlife Services report that detailed the detrimental impacts of three widely used pesticides on endangered species. The New York Times first reported the decision.
Bernhardt defended his decision to prevent the report from being publicized.
“My impression of it was, this is a really interesting draft, but it didn’t have any legal review,” Bernhardt said.
Wyden questioned Bernhardt’s commitment to an ethics agreement he made when he joined the Interior Department as Deputy Secretary in 2017. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist and lawyer for the oil industry. Before working at Interior, he worked at the DC law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, leading their natural resources law division. The law firm regularly represents California’s Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the US.
“I think you are so conflicted that if you get confirmed, you have one of two choices. One, you are gonna have to disqualify yourself from so many matters, I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day, or, two, you’re gonna be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients, regularly violating your ethics pledge,” Wyden said during the hearing.
Sen. Catherine Cortez-Mastro (D-NV) questioned Bernhardt’s decision to keep parts of the Bureau of Land Management office open during the 35-day federal government shutdown at the beginning of the year to continue issuing oil and gas permits and leases. A CNN investigation found that Interior issued 267 onshore drilling permits and 16 leases applied for by oil and gas companies during the shutdown.
Bernhardt explained that he kept people working on those permits and leases by accessing a different funding stream. Some bureaus receive multi-year funding, and fee venue funding was available to use right away, he argued, while national parks get funding on a yearly basis. He also said it was a safety concern, and he was trying to get people back to work.
“I made a decision during the shutdown that we were going to put people back to work because I could guarantee that they could get paid, and I didn’t know how long this was going to take,” Bernhardt said. “I can tell you, I had employees that were calling our ethics office to see if they could sell their plasma, and so I made a decision to put those folks to work that I could.”
The Interior Department is one of the federal government’s largest departments. It employs over 700,000 people and manages everything from national parks to 20% of the nation’s land. The Bureau of Land Management, the part of Interior that handles oil and gas permits and leases, has 9,000 employees. Only 1,530 BLM employees are exempt and required to work during a shutdown – 524 in full-time status and 1,006 on call.
“In every shutdown prior, the Interior Department actually shuts down, and approving oil and gas drilling permits is not an essential government function,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group that has tracked the permit approvals through records requests. “There’s no reason these permits couldn’t have waited until after the shutdown, but (Bernhardt) wanted to get them out the door anyway.”
At the end of the hearing, Murkowski asked Bernhardt again about his ethics review. She asked if he had been cleared by the Office of Government Ethics for nomination and asked if Interior’s designated ethics official had ensured that Bernhardt is in compliance with his ethics agreement. To both, Bernhardt said, “That is correct.”
“It must be exceptionally hard to sit in a committee, to sit where you are, and to have it not only be suggested, but to be stated that you have lied,” Murkowski said.
“I certainly didn’t lie to the Senator,” Bernhardt said in response.
Bernhardt’s confirmation vote is expected to be put in front of the Senate in the next few weeks.