Another Coloradan is set to lead the Department of Interior, as the U.S. Senate confirmed David Bernhardt as the agency’s secretary Thursday.
Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle and practiced law in Denver, served as deputy secretary under Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid several ethics investigations in December.
He follows in the Interior footsteps of Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, who served in President Barack Obama’s cabinet, and Republican Gale Norton, the department’s secretary under President George W. Bush.
The Interior Department oversees millions of acres across Colorado, including national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It also oversees energy development on federal lands in the state.
Bernhardt could prove a crucial home-state ally if the Trump administration follows through with a plan to move the department’s headquarters or one or more of its agencies out of Washington, D.C. Grand Junction is considered a possible location.
The confirmation was not warmly greeted by some of the state’s leading environment organizations Thursday.
They cited his work in private practice for the oil and gas industry, as well as support from Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican many on the left hope to unseat when he’s up for re-election next year.
“Being a Colorado native does not give David Bernhardt special qualifications for running the Department of the Interior, and shame on Sen. Gardner for letting the fox guard the henhouse simply because he’s from the same neighborhood,” Kelly Nordini, the executive director of Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental group, said in a statement.
“Sen. Gardner made a huge mistake with his vote today, given Bernhardt’s troubling record and spiraling conflicts of interest.
“Westerners love their public lands and the environment and Bernhardt cannot be entrusted to protect them on our behalf.”
But Gardner on Thursday pointed to the bipartisan support Bernhardt received in the Senate.
“I’ve known David for over 20 years now, and I am confident his experience at the Department of Interior makes him more than qualified to do this job,” Gardner said in a statement.
“Throughout his confirmation process, I have been continuously vocal about my support for him. David understands how important issues like conservation and moving the Bureau of Land Management West are to the people of Colorado, and that makes his confirmation today great news for our state. I have no doubt David will do a fantastic job as secretary of interior.”
The Senate voted 56-41 to approve Bernhardt’s nomination to oversee the country’s public lands and resources.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, had voted with Gardner to confirm Bernhardt as deputy secretary of the department in 2017. But two months ago he announced he would oppose him for the top job.
“During his tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Bernhardt has worked to revoke national methane standards, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and limit input from state and local officials with respect to the oil and gas leasing process in Colorado,” Bennet said in February.
Bernhardt — formerly with Denver-based law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he co-chaired the firm’s natural resources practice —worked as a lobbyist and lawyer on behalf of several oil and gas companies and other interests that sometimes have regulatory matters before the department.
Bernhardt, who was confirmed to the No. 2 Interior position in July 2017, says he has complied with all ethics laws and rules. But Democrats and environmental groups accuse him of using his federal post to shape regulations and legislation in favor of oil and gas interests and other former clients.
”The Zinke ethics hurricane was bad enough. America should not be harmed again by a Bernhardt ethical typhoon,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Critics also say Bernhardt has acted to ease regulations holding oil companies accountable for spills and increased drilling and mining access on millions of acres of public land used by the sage grouse, a threatened bird species.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Bernhardt has the experience and expertise needed to lead the department.
”He is from the West, he has great familiarity with the issues that will come before him and he has proven that he can ably lead the department,” she said.
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