Memo: Ahead of Colorado visit, here’s what you should know about Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s record

Sep 20, 2019

To: Reporters and Interested Parties
From: Aaron Weiss, Deputy Director, Center for Western Priorities
Re: Ahead of Colorado visit, here’s what you should know about Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s record

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s tenure has been devastating for America’s public lands and wildlife. The former oil and gas lobbyist has delivered for his old clients, stripping protections for wildlife and throwing the doors open for drilling and mining on our public lands. With Bernhardt slated to attend a Republican fundraiser in Westminster and his rumored appearance at the Club 20 meeting in Grand Junction, here’s what you should know about his track record:

Dissolving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters 
Bernhardt has overseen a plan to break up the BLM headquarters, shipping hundreds of employees West and leaving a skeleton crew in DC. With 95% of employees already out West, this is a cynical attempt to drain the agency of career expertise and reduce its clout in Washington. Notably, the plan will place only 27 employees in the new “headquarters” in Grand Junction. Other staffers will be dispersed throughout the West, with little justification for their placement. For example, reports suggest legislative affairs staff that regularly interact with Congress will be relocated to Reno, Nevada. 

Opening vast swaths of public lands to oil and gas drilling
As part of Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, the BLM has offered more than 18.9 million acres for oil and gas leasing since 2017 and is currently planning lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In March, the Interior Department weakened landmark sage-grouse plans to allow oil and gas leasing in prime habitat, even though the bird is experiencing steady declines due to development. During this administration, the Interior Department has taken action on at least 53 policy requests from industry, from easing safety regulations to decreasing protections for wildlife.

Dismantling the Endangered Species Act
The Interior Department weakened Endangered Species Act enforcement guidelines, making it easier to deny critical protections, and likely resulting in increased extinctions. The agency also gutted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it will no longer hold oil and gas companies liable for killing protected birds in oil spills and waste ponds. 

Skirting ethics rules and rewarding the swamp 
With at least 20 former clients that have business before the Interior Department, Bernhardt is the Trump administration’s most conflicted secretary. During his tenure, Interior completed or advanced at least 25 policy actions requested or supported by 16 former clients. According to the New York Times, Bernhardt directed staff to weaken protections for a California fish—something he lobbied and litigated on for a major client. However, his ethics recusals expired in early August, so he is now free to meet and work with former clients. 

Keeping Congress and the public in the dark
Under Bernhardt, Interior has allowed political appointees to block and delay the release of information to the public. Similarly, Bernhardt’s public calendars are void of meaningful details, with hundreds of hours of “internal” and “external” meetings keeping the public in the dark about who he’s meeting with. While he has fought to keep his calendars secret, a number of undisclosed meetings are known to have been with oil and gas industry representatives

Appointing anti-public lands officials to manage public lands
Bernhardt has populated the Interior Department with officials who oppose public lands. Mostly notably, acting BLM director William Perry Pendley and deputy solicitor Karen Budd-Falen have built their careers advocating for the transfer of public lands and dismantling of wildlife protections—they now hold important positions overseeing our public lands and wildlife protections.