Lost in the noise of another meaningless State of the Union address, Beto O’Rourke’s Oprah musings and the starting engines of an endless presidential race was the news that David Bernhardt might be getting a promotion.
Most Americans have no idea who Bernhardt is. He was an oil lobbyist, a very good one, who became the deputy chief of the Department of the Interior under the hapless Ryan Zinke. While the former congressman became entangled in numerous ethics investigations and eventually resigned, it was Bernhardt, conflicts of interest and all, who was pulling the strings of the overlooked but vital department, which oversees most federally owned land and natural resources. Now Trump has nominated him to take over the department.
Under Bernhardt, the interior department has become an embodiment of Donald Trump’s id, and is arguably where the administration is doing most of its damage. In a White House that denies the reality of climate change and rejects the idea of even safeguarding drinking water, our environment and future is of little worth.
Millions of acres of public land have been opened up to fossil fuel and mining interests since Trump took office. Regulations on the oil industry have been cut as new lands and waters are exposed to dangerous drilling. After Trump ordered Zinke to open almost the entire US coastline to offshore drilling, it was Bernhardt who reportedly helped develop the plan.
Bernhardt has tried to gut a program to protect tens of millions of acre of habitat for the endangered sage grouse, a bird that roams over oil-rich western states. His proposal would strip protections from about 9m acres of the sage grouse habitat. Bernhardt has also chipped away at the Endangered Species Act, hastening the path to opening the Arctic national wildlife refuge to oil and gas drilling.
What’s unclear is how Bernhardt will proceed if he takes over the department in the wake of Zinke’s corruption. Shortly after the Trump administration made its offshore drilling announcement, Zinke suddenly declared that Florida would be exempted.
The announcement from Zinke’s Twitter account came with a picture of the former congressman with Rick Scott, the Florida governor who was the campaigning for a Senate seat. A federal investigation is ongoing into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act, prohibiting federal employees from using their offices to influence elections. Other governors, rightfully so, are now clamoring for an exemption, and could sue the Trump administration if the carve-out for Florida goes forward.
Bernhardt will face a rigorous confirmation process, at least in the Democrat-controlled House. Before joining the Trump administration, he worked for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. He lobbied for Cobalt International Energy and Samson Resources. As an attorney, his legal clients included the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Halliburton, the oil and gas-extraction mega-firm once headed by the former vice-president Dick Cheney.
Bernhardt’s connection to Cheney was natural: before he left for a lucrative private sector career representing the corporations profiting off our environmental crisis, he was a top official in the interior department under George W Bush.
For those who view Trump as an anomaly and a derangement of American life, Bernhardt’s existence is a reminder that this is not always so. He is an embodiment of the modern Republican party and could be wielding influence in any of the potential cabinets Trump’s rivals would have stocked had they defeated him. He is business-as-usual, profit over humanity.
While there are Democrats who have forged unseemly relationships with the fossil fuel industry, the party’s leftward lurch has meant a wide scale rejection of their money and influence. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement’s push for a Green New Deal, a radical reimagining of how we consume energy to confront the climate catastrophe ahead, is gaining support among mainstream Democrats.
The Republican party, however, is unmoved, and they have little reason to rebel against Trump if he continues to do the bidding of oil and gas companies, empowering regulators like Bernhardt. Republican lawmakers side with Trump: climate change is a fabrication and nothing matters but the ruthless extraction of energy. He is doing exactly what they want him to do.
- Ross Barkan is a freelance journalist in New York City
This article provided by NewsEdge.