WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats grilled Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt during a confirmation hearing about his lengthy lobbying career for energy interests and possible conflicts involving public lands and coastal waters.
Bernhardt told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he would not recuse himself in decisions that could affect former clients, saying the best strategy was to have your best “quarterback on the team.”
But his lighthearted and homespun answers did little to defuse the tense questioning of Democrats who charged that Bernhardt would be ethically challenged in nearly every decision involving oil, gas and coal extraction on public lands, and policies on offshore drilling.
“I’m not claiming you’re Big Oil’s guy. The Big Oil lobbyists are making that claim,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Wyden told Bernhardt that if he is confirmed, “you’re going to be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients, regularly violating your ethics pledge.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., grilled Bernhardt, the acting secretary, on decisions to scale back boundaries of national monuments in Utah, and the number of oil and gas leases that largely outnumber leases for alternative energy on on public land.
A former Interior appointee under President George W. Bush, Bernhardt left government and became a lobbyist for multiple oil, gas and agriculture clients before being tapped to return by Trump.
A committee vote on the nomination is expected within weeks.
Bernhardt was defended by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee chairwoman, who has praised the Trump administration for opening coastal waters for offshore drilling and regulatory rollbacks that have benefited industries in her state.
“Mr. Bernhardt has seen how federal policies impact people’s access to and use of public land, and he recognizes the need to balance conservation with opportunities for economic development,” Murkowski said.
She said Bernhardt has the “background, experience and competence to be secretary of the Interior.”
Murkowski also noted that government ethics officials have reviewed Bernhardt’s plans to deal with issues involving former industry clients to avoid conflicts.
Bernhardt told ranking committee Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., that he would not recuse himself on regulatory decisions that affect past clients. “I don’t think that really is the best strategy.”
“I’m actually pretty good at going up against these guys, and I would say you want to have your A quarterback on the team,” Bernhardt said.
During the hearing, an audience member donned a green mask of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” a silent protest about the “swamp” culture in Washington that the president railed about during his campaign.
This week, 29 public interest and environmental groups sent a letter to the Senate urging lawmakers to reject the nomination.
“David Bernhardt is the essence of the Trump administration’s culture of corruption,” said Brent Bolin, the Clean Water Fund political director. “He is truly a swamp creature.”
Bolin said Bernhardt’s “years of lobbying on behalf of the oil and gas industry should disqualify him from ever stepping foot inside the Department of Interior.”
But Bernhardt was endorsed by the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of Western state Republican lawmakers that includes Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev.
Bernhardt, a Colorado native, told the committee he valued public recreation, growing up in a state where learned to hunt and fish.
He also pledged to address allegations of workplace and sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, and agreed to visit the park’s headquarters and meet with staff with Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.