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The ‘Power Behind The Throne’ At The Interior Department Could Become Head If Zinke Resigns

Photo of David Bernhardt
U.S. Department of the Interior via Twitter
David Bernhardt is the Interior Department's deputy secretary, and he's next in line to take over the department if Secretary Ryan Zinke steps down.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s days may be numbered.


It’s been a rocky 21-month tenure for the former congressman from Montana. He’s the subject of at least two open ethics investigations, conservation groups want him out and President Trump has said his team will look into complaints.

If Zinke does resign — or he’s forced out — Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would replace him.


As second-in-command, Bernhardt runs daily operations while Zinke meets with politicians or travels to devastating wildfires.


“He’s thought by many to be the power behind the throne,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility.


Bernhardt is a polarizing figure, loved by industry and assailed by environmental protection groups.

He has a track record in Washington governance and politics, but he is also a revolving door figure. He worked for a D.C. lobbying firm whose clients included natural resource extraction companies.


Environmentalists argue it raises ethical questions for someone who worked on behalf of oil and gas companies to then be in charge of managing those resources.


Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, said naysayers are being hypocritical.  

“It’s always interesting to hear the enviros say that kind of thing because they have no problem with them occupying positions when the tide is turned,” she said.

Case in point – the last U.S. Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, was the former head of outdoor recreation behemoth REI.

Sgamma said Bernhardt’s philosophy of responsible energy development on public lands is good for both American taxpayers and oil, gas or coal dependent towns across the Mountain West.


“It’s not about benefiting any particular company that he might have worked for,” she said. “I mean, everybody needs to earn a living, right? He can earn a living. But he can also come in and advance policies that enable that responsible energy development that benefits all Americans.”


The U.S. Interior Department manages one-fifth of all the land in the United States, including  

the wealth of oil, natural gas and coal below the ground. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leases on public lands managed by the Interior Department last year generated $360 million dollars, an almost 90 percent increase from 2016.


Bernhardt sees himself as a foot soldier for President Trump’s pro-energy development agenda.


“The President’s objectives actually represent the will of the people,” Bernhardt said during a speech to the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation in September 2018. “That means that at Interior, our goals are focused on the President’s goals.”


Those goals include deregulation and relaxing environmental standards for oil and gas companies.

Bernhardt is widely known to have a surgical legal mind and he’s helped steer some of biggest efforts within Interior.

For instance, late last year he erased a chapter on climate change from the department’s handbook. Ruch said Bernhardt also advocated for rolling back Endangered Species Act protections and relaxing methane rules for oil and gas companies.

“He views Interior as an entity that should be renamed the Department of Energy and Mining,” Ruch said.

The Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda are similar to George W. Bush’s administrative goals. That’s where Bernhardt first served as a top aide and eventually a solicitor within Interior.

Prior to that, he worked for the D.C. lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt. Its clients included a host of natural resource extraction companies. After Obama was elected, Bernhardt left the Interior Department and rejoined Brownstein Hyatt.

Once Trump took office, however, Bernhardt was nominated to help run Interior once again.

While Sgamma and Ruch’s opinions vary on whether Bernhardt’s leadership is good for the country, they both agree that nothing much will change at Interior if Zinke resigns and Bernhardt takes the reins.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KRCC and KUNC in Colorado and KUER.

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