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As Rumors Mount Zinke's Days Are Numbered, Warnings About 'Man Behind the Curtain' Who Could Take Over Interior

Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist with "so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all."

Deputy secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt—who could take over the department if his boss Ryan Zinke is ousted—has a long history of lobbying for Big Oil and Big Ag. (Photo: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck)

While President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have both maintained that, at least for now, Zinke will remain in his post despite ongoing ethics probes, as rumors continue to mount that his days in the administration are numbered, so do concerns about his second-in-command, David Bernhardt.

"He is the guy behind the curtain who's manipulating everything."
—Jim Lyons, ex-Interior staffer

As the Interior Department's deputy secretary, Bernhardt would likely take the helm if Zinke resigns or is fired. Bernhardt worked his way up to serve as solicitor of the department during the George W. Bush administration.

After that, as the Washington Post reported Monday, he worked as a lobbyist for polluting industries—which means that now, he has "so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all."

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)—a critic of the department's approach to California water issues, from which Bernhart had to recuse himself for a year—and others have called him "a walking conflict of interest."

"He is the guy behind the curtain who's manipulating everything, which he can do with his wealth of knowledge and experience," Jim Lyons, who served as deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management under the Obama administration, told the Post.

As Jeff Turrentine of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warned last week, Bernhardt's "long Washington résumé suggests that he would happily continue to carry out the Trump administration's war on public lands and federal waters—albeit with greater legal sophistication and fewer unforced ethical errors than his predecessor."

But even as Zinke's No. 2, Bernhardt has played a key role in shaping policy. As the Post detailed:

In a year and a half, he has made it easier for federal authorities to approve drilling projects on land and offshore, has proposed narrowing habitat protections for endangered species, and is pushing California to divert more of its water from conservation to agricultural interests.

While Zinke drew headlines over multiple ethics investigations, Bernhardt focused on executing President Trump's vision to fuel the nation's energy production.

Already, the department has offered more than 17 million acres of federal lands for oil and gas leases.

Asked about calls for efforts to curb the global climate crisis, the Post reported that "Bernhardt said he had virtually no legal obligation to act—even though climate change is already raising global temperatures and Interior scientists warn it is harming land and key species under the department's control."

He's been a guiding force behind the administration's efforts to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, bringing together Fish and Wildlife Service officials and political appointees to craft an a formal proposal. As the Post noted:

The proposed rule, if enacted, could mark the biggest change to federal endangered species policy in decades, making it easier for development to take place in imperiled species' habitats.

It would instruct the department, for the first time, to analyze the economic impact of listing a species. Critics say it would impose a major financial burden on the agency, and it would only trigger federal intervention if an action harms "the whole" of a species' key habitat, rather than just part of it.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, described the proposal as "death by a thousand cuts."

"If Americans think they'll be getting a better secretary of the Interior once Zinke's out, they're sadly mistaken. They'll just be getting a shrewder one."
—Jeff Turrentine, NRDC

Various progressive groups have raised concerns about Bernhardt's goals at the department and conflicts of interest, given "his long history working as a lobbyist for Big Oil and Big Ag."

The Western Values Project, for example, has issued a report on his time at the department, filed records requests to gather more information about his service under Trump, and, in a lawsuit filed last month, alleged that his ex-clients "began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months since his swearing in."

While acknowledging the lawsuit, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik concluded: "Bernhardt's putative conflicts all have the virtue of deniability. At least one or two steps separate Interior actions from benefits flowing to his former clients, so who can say that he's violating his explicit promises to recuse himself? But that deniability could make an Interior Secretary Bernhardt much more dangerous than the hapless Secretary Zinke."

Turrentine concurred, writing, "Zinke needs to go, but not just because of his shady real estate deals and pricey travel habits. He deserves to lose his job over what he's done to public lands such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante—shrinking their borders and imperiling sacred lands to appease industry—and to our federal waters, 90 percent of which he wants to open up to oil and gas drilling."

"But if Americans think they'll be getting a better secretary of the Interior once Zinke's out, they're sadly mistaken," he added. "They'll just be getting a shrewder one."

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