William Perry Pendley headshot
CNN  — 

President Donald Trump on Friday said he plans to nominate William Perry Pendley, a controversial figure who would become Trump’s first head of the agency managing one-tenth of the nation’s land mass and vast amounts of underground oil, gas and minerals.

A CNN investigation last year uncovered comments from Pendley that were critical of science, climate change and environmentalism. In 2019, he said concerns about climate change come from “kooks” who are “preaching fear.” If confirmed, Pendley would head an agency with wide authority over fossil fuel extraction on federal land.

Because of the long-standing vacancy in the top Bureau of Land Management post, Pendley has effectively led the agency since he was appointed deputy director last year. That position did not require Senate confirmation, but the directorship does.

The forthcoming nomination may give Pendley firmer footing to continue leading the agency under the federal law that governs nominations and vacancies. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Republican chairwoman of the committee overseeing the bureau, did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the Friday afternoon announcement.

Pendley’s leadership of the bureau is currently under challenge by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a pro-watchdog and whistleblower legal group that has taken on the Trump administration. The group filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department over the temporary authority the department has repeatedly conferred on Pendley and his counterpart leading the National Park Service. The Justice Department has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement Friday that Pendley is “doing a great job, including acquiring more than 25,000 acres of public land for expanded recreational access.”

The department’s statement also noted Pendley “has decades of experience in federal land management policy as an attorney.”

That experience includes advocating for ranchers in the Western states against the US government when he led the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation for 30 years.

The CNN investigation showed that Pendley criticized environmentalism in a 1992 speech delivered several years after he left the Reagan administration’s Interior Department. He told CNN the comments had been taken out of context and were “irrelevant” to his current role of carrying out Trump administration policies.

Pendley has also previously called for the federal government to sell off its vast landholdings. The Bureau of Land Management oversees more federal land than any other agency.

The agency has played an important part in the administration’s priority of increasing energy production. On Thursday, the bureau proposed opening millions of acres in rural Alaska for oil and gas leasing.

While at the helm, Pendley has overseen a relocation of the agency’s headquarters from Washington to Colorado. Interior officials have argued the move will put the agency’s decision-making closer to the resources it manages, which are primarily in Western states. The forced move led to many career employees leaving the agency.

That relocation is one of several concerns Democrats have with the nomination. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said Friday that Pendley “has no business running” the agency and called the relocation “nothing more than a transparent attempt to undermine the very agency he oversees.”