Rifle native praised, grilled in hearing for Interior post
Rifle native David Bernhardt received praise from Republicans and some tough questioning from Democrats Thursday during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on his nomination to be deputy secretary of the Department of Interior.
“Mr. Bernhardt’s integrity and ability are two of his strongest qualifications for this nomination,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in introducing Bernhardt at the start of the hearing by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The committee didn’t vote Thursday on Bernhardt’s nomination. Gardner spokesman Casey Contres said a committee vote isn’t expected this week but is likely to occur soon.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., hasn’t yet indicated how he would vote on the nomination assuming it reaches the Senate floor.
Bernhardt, an attorney, previously worked in the Interior Department, becoming its solicitor in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration. The solicitor is the highest-ranking legal officer in the department.
As deputy secretary, Bernhardt would hold the number two position within the Interior Department, acting as its chief operating officer.
In his opening comments, Bernhardt recalled his experiences enjoying the outdoors as a youth growing up in Rifle, and going with his father to local water district, fair board and soil conservation district meetings. There, discussions often centered around water and what is taking place on public lands.
“That’s what people talked about in western Colorado,” he said. “… At times they thought their federal neighbors were helpful, and at others, far less so.”
He also recalled his “sense of economic hopelessness” following the bust of the oil shale industry in the 1980s, which drove him to leave high school a year early to get out of Rifle.
Gardner said that both he and Bernhardt served as interns for Russell George, at the time a state lawmaker from Rifle, who in that capacity ultimately served as speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Bernhardt now lives in Virginia, and leads the natural resource law practice at the high-profile law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Bernhardt said he has a good understanding of the mission of each bureau within Interior and knows the dedication of the people who work there.
“For me there are few missions as important as those of the Department of Interior,” he said.
He has support in his nomination from entities including the Colorado River District, Colorado Water Congress, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable, and a number of sportsmen’s groups.
However, Democratic senators participating in Thursday’s nomination hearing hammered Bernhardt with questions and concerns about the idea that he’s looking to travel through what Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called a “revolving door” between being a regulator and representing regulated industries such as oil and gas, mining and water development.
Others suggested Bernhardt’s nomination by President Trump runs contrary to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” to address concerns about people going back and forth between lobbying and regulatory work.
Bernhardt said he takes ethics “incredibly seriously,” and he committed “unequivocally” to make all decisions in the interests of the people of the United States. He said if something comes up involving a client or former client of his firm, he would go to Interior’s ethics office for direction.
Republican senators argued that people have moved between regulatory and regulated-sector jobs during Democratic administrations as well, and Bernhardt deserves to be treated the same way Democratic nominees have been.
Gardner told Bernhardt, “I appreciate your willingness to come out of the private sector and provide that valuable public service to the government.”
Cantwell contended that past nominees have been rejected for “patently absurd” reasons involving having worked for environmental groups or served on their boards, “and in one case simply being a vegetarian.”
Bernhardt underwent extensive questioning from Democratic senators over the role of science in his decision-making. He denied having previously modified science data when he worked at Interior.
“We look at the science, then we apply the law,” he said.
He said sometimes regulators also can consider other factors, such as jobs.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., pressed Bernhardt for how he thinks science should be applied when it comes to climate-change concerns.
“I believe we need to take the science as it comes, whatever that is,” Bernhardt said.
“I think the science is pretty decided on this,” Franken countered.
Bernhardt said his task is to take the science and put it in the paradigm of the Trump administration’s policy that it’s not going to sacrifice jobs out of concerns about climate change. Bernhardt said he then would have to apply the law from there.
“This president ran, he won on a particular policy perspective. That perspective is not going to change to the extent that we have the discretion under the law to follow it. …
That’s the way our republic works and he is the president,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt also said that while environmental standards need to be maintained, there needs to be streamlining of environmental review processes that have become so costly and complex that they result in “paralysis of analysis, if you will.” He agreed with Gardner about the need to improve the protracted permitting process for water development projects.
He also supported Gardner’s call for placing federal workers specializing in public lands issues close to the lands and people affected.
“Not only do I think it’s a good idea, senator, I think it might already be happening,” he said with a laugh.
Gardner has introduced a bill that seeks to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out West, and he would like to see the office moved to Grand Junction.