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David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, was confirmed as the next Secretary of the Interior on Thursday. (Photo: U.S. Department of Interior/Flickr/cc)

'A Win for Big Oil and a Gut Punch to Public Lands': Conflict-Ridden Former Lobbyist Bernhardt Confirmed as Interior Secretary

"David Bernhardt's ties to Big Oil—the very industry he is tasked with regulating—are as deep as an oil well."

Julia Conley

Climate action groups were angered but unsurprised Thursday when the Republican-led Senate confirmed former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt as the next Interior Secretary—seemingly abandoning the GOP's stated goal of "draining the swamp," considering Bernhardt's background.

By a 56-41 vote, the Senate named as the nation's top official overseeing public lands and natural resources a fossil fuel industry insider with 26 known conflicts of interest—which Bernhardt lists on a notecard he regularly carries around, according to reports.

See the final roll call here.

"Friends of the Earth would like to congratulate Big Oil for securing another industry insider in Trump's cabinet," said Nicole Ghio, who manages Friends of the Earth's (FOE) fossil fuels program. "The fossil fuel industry couldn't ask for a better 'thank you' from the U.S. senators they bankrolled than David Bernhardt leading DOI."

As deputy secretary at the Department of Interior during Ryan Zinke's tenure at the helm of the agency—which ended in January after Zinke's own slew of ethics scandals—Bernhardt helped roll back offshore drilling regulations, open up more than 17 million acres of land for gas and oil leases, overhaul the Endangered Species Act, and claimed that he had "virtually no legal obligation" to take action to help curb the climate crisis.

A number of senators joined green groups in raising grave concerns over Bernhardt's conduct and history as the Senate debated his confirmation, which critics say was rushed.

"David Bernhardt's ties to Big Oil—the very industry he is tasked with regulating—are as deep as an oil well," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Thursday. "Those ties should be disqualifying for anyone nominated to head Interior. We must stop the pollution of our democracy by Big Oil interests."

In recent weeks, the advocacy group Public Citizen has led a campaign in which protesters dressed as swamp monsters descended on Capitol Hill, including at Bernhardt's confirmation hearing, to represent the new secretary's allegiance to the very industries he is supposed to protect the country's public lands from.

"Donald Trump often talked about wanting to drain the swamp, but really with a choice like David Bernhardt he is filling D.C. with more swamp monsters," Madeline Page, a campaign coordinator with Public Citizen, told Roll Call Wednesday.

Two Democratic senators, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, joined Republicans in supporting Bernhardt's confirmation.

"President Trump and his allies in the Senate are turning back the clock to a time when land barons again rule the departments that are supposed to hold them accountable," said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project. "Those special interests and corporate lobbyists now have their man at the helm of America's largest land managing agency in former mega-lobbyist David Bernhardt."

"History will not look kindly on the senators who voted to continue the decimation of America's public lands and wildlife for the sake of a select few special interests," added Saeger.

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