New documents raise more questions about former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt
President Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt, has repeatedly claimed that he would manage our parks and public lands on behalf of all Americans, not the scores of industry clients that paid him handsomely in recent years. But since Bernhardt took office as Deputy Interior Secretary, the agency has advanced at least 25 policies supported by his former clients. Now, newly released documents show that Bernhardt has routinely hidden meetings with oil, gas, and mining companies from the public, raising even more questions about who he’s actually working for.
Since taking office in August 2017, Bernhardt has released overwhelmingly vague versions of his calendars, filled with entries of “external meeting” and “internal briefing” that obscure virtually all information about who he’s meeting with. When Congressional investigators asked for his actual detailed calendars, Bernhardt combatively asserted that he hadn’t personally kept a calendar in years and wasn’t legally obligated to do so. But on March 27, the Washington Post reported that Bernhardt’s staff had, in fact, kept details of his calendar in a Google document, called a “daily card,” then routinely deleted the previous day’s entry, effectively keeping those details hidden from the public.
Facing pressure from Congressional committees and legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, Interior Department staff attempted to recreate portions of those deleted calendars, which were subsequently released. According to CQ Roll Call, the newly released documents include more than 260 discrepancies from the original calendars. A review by the Center for Western Priorities found that at least 64 of those discrepancies were meetings with outside, nongovernmental organizations. Of those 64 meetings, 45 were with drilling, mining, water, and other industry groups, many of which overlap with Bernhardt’s work as a former lobbyist and lawyer.
These previously-hidden calendars show meetings with household names‚Ää—‚Ääoil and gas giants ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell, the National Mining Association, and the international concrete corporation CEMEX, just to name a few.
Several egregious examples show just how much Bernhardt misled the public. On September 22, 2017, Bernhardt’s public calendar listed a “Meeting to Discuss Energy Issues.” The reconstructed calendars listed the same meeting as “Mtg. Jack Gerard, API.” The American Petroleum Institute is the largest oil and gas trade association in the country that has long lobbied to roll back environmental and safety rules. Interior Department visitor logs show Jack Gerard, then-CEO of API, signing in minutes before the purported “meeting.”
On November 14, 2017, Bernhardt’s public calendar listed an “Energy Meeting” from 2:00 to 2:45pm. The reconstructed calendars listed that same meeting as “Mtg. w/ CEO’s of Independent Oil & Gas Producers.” This could be members of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), a former Bernhardt client which has lobbied extensively to remove oil and gas safeguards, lift protections on migrating birds and sage-grouse, and weaken the Endangered Species Act, but it’s impossible to tell. Bernhardt schedules do indicate, however, that he met with a member of IPAA’s Board of Directors, Cimarex Energy, on May 23, 2018, blurring the ethical boundaries of his recusals.
A secret recording reported on this March shows IPAA executives celebrating Bernhardt’s rise to power at the Interior Department during a private June 2017 event. “We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” said IPAA’s political director Dan Naatz, according to the recording acquired by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
On April 18, 2018, Bernhardt’s calendar references an “External Meeting” from 4:00 to 4:45pm. But the newly released calendars provide new detail, listing a meeting with “National Mining Association” at that time. Members of the National Mining Association include Hudbay Minerals, a former Bernhardt client that has long sought to develop a massive copper mine in southern Arizona, potentially impacting a dozen threatened or endangered species.
Even Bernhardt’s internal governmental meetings mask some of the acting secretary’s more questionable actions. Originally billed to the public as a vaguely-described “internal meeting,” Bernhardt’s calendars now indicate that he met with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 17, 2018 to discuss the imperiled delta smelt fish. According to the New York Times, Bernhardt directed Interior staff in late 2017 to begin weakening endangered-species protections for California’s tiny delta smelt‚Ää—‚Ääa narrow policy change that would directly benefit one of Bernhardt’s former clients, Westlands Water District.