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Democrats Grill Interior Nominee Over Energy Industry Ties

David Bernhardt wouldn't say whether he believes in climate change

Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was concerned whether David Bernhardt could avoid potential conflicts of interest with the energy industry in his new position as deputy Interior secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was concerned whether David Bernhardt could avoid potential conflicts of interest with the energy industry in his new position as deputy Interior secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Donald Trump’s deputy Interior secretary nominee David Bernhardt sidestepped questions during his Thursday confirmation hearing about whether he believes in climate change, saying instead that regardless of what the science says, he will follow the president’s the policy positions.

At the hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republicans praised Bernhardt as “uniquely qualified” and Democrats raised objections to his long history as a lobbyist for oil, gas and mineral firms that could benefit from his appointment.

“We are absolutely going to follow the policy perspective of the president,” Bernhardt said in reply to a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., about his climate change views. “That’s the way our republic works because he’s the president.”

Trump has previously said that climate change is a hoax created by China to undermine American competitiveness and has promised to walk away from the Paris agreement to cut carbon emissions as a way to combat global warming — though his current position on the issue is not clear.

Bernhardt, who leads the natural resources department at Washington law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, is a former congressional staffer, longtime lobbyist and attorney who has challenged the Interior Department in courts on behalf of clients.

During the George W. Bush administration he served as the Interior Department’s chief legal officer, and as counselor to the secretary and director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. Bernhardt has been criticized by environmental advocates for pushing for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Wyoming during his Bush years.

At the hearing, Energy and Natural Resources’ top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, said she was concerned about potential conflicts of interest rising from Bernhardt’s representation of oil and gas companies as a lobbyist and attorney.

“Mr. Bernhardt is now seeking to come back through this revolving door to regulate the same companies he has [represented],” Cantwell said.

She also warned that Bernhardt’s service at the Bush Interior Department came at a time when the agency faced scrutiny over a “culture of ethical failures.”

In a May 1 letter to the Interior Ethics Office, Bernhardt said he would withdraw from his law firm “and all related entities” if confirmed. He also said he will for one year after that withdrawal “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know the firm is a party or represents a party,” or any case where he has a direct financial interest unless given a waiver.

Cantwell called for Bernhardt to recuse himself from those decisions for his entire tenure at Interior. He would not commit to that, saying instead he would consult with the ethics office any time a potential for conflict of interest arose, and follow the office’s decision.

Bernhardt told lawmakers he would approach Interior issues with “an open mind” and “listen to varied views and perspectives.”

“We will cooperate and collaborate with states,” he said, adding that he would be respectful of the states’ ability to manage their natural resources.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski praised him as an “excellent choice” who understands Western issues. And Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming said Bernhardt was “keenly aware that this administration doesn’t want to continue the business-as-usual” of the Obama administration.

In response to a question from Barrasso about how he would reduce regulatory burdens on industry, Bernhardt said he would simplify environmental impact analyses that bog down permitting processes.

“We are a country that is suffering from analysis paralysis,” Bernhardt said. “If it’s a bad project, we need to say it’s a bad project and move on.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked whether he could be trusted at a time when “scientists and science are under attack under this administration.” Bernhardt said scientific decisions need to be balanced with the law and the impact on jobs.

“My integrity on science is unquestionable and that is a fact,” he said.

Murkowski did not give an indication of when a vote to advance Bernhardt’s nomination would be held, but said she is looking to move ahead “as expeditiously as possible.”

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