Taking the “Public” out of Public Service, New Interior Secretary Bernhardt Refuses to Address Climate Change

April 30, 2019 | 1:32 pm
US Department of the Interior/Flickr
Joel Clement
Former Contributor

Trump Administration Cabinet officials have hit a number of new lows in recent months, but there is a more troubling trend that gets lost in all the scandal and incompetence. In the past, industry-friendly administrations hired political leaders who would emphasize deregulation and industry priorities, and minimize work on conservation and American health and safety. You may not agree with their priorities, but as long as they operated within the law, they were entitled to impose their policy priorities on the executive branch.

The Trump administration, however, is not concerned about operating within the law, and newly minted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is exhibit A.

In a hurry to deliver for industry

As a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, Bernhardt has left no doubt as to his allegiances. Eager to bring quick “wins” for the administration, his handouts to industry came thick and fast as soon as he was first confirmed as Deputy Secretary in 2017. With Secretary Ryan Zinke attracting headlines with his scandals, Bernhardt was free to work behind the scenes, and he wanted his fossil fuel patrons to feel the love. He rushed environmental reviews of leasing programs in Alaska, reversed offshore oil and gas leasing restrictions, and even made BLM staff work during the government shutdown so he could get over 250 new drilling permits approved despite the rest of the agency grinding to a halt.

Rushing ahead with decisions that were neither supported by existing evidence nor properly vetted with the public, Bernhardt at first seemed to be very good at delivering for his industry patrons. He was described as a clever insider who knew how to pull the levers at the agency. It turns out, however, that avoiding required processes and legal scrutiny is not a recipe for ultimate success, and Bernhardt is starting to look more like an impatient grifter than a clever insider as the courts reverse his illegal decisions one after the other and the agency’s Inspector General began an ethics investigation into his actions just days after his confirmation as Secretary.

A dubious legal pretext

Given his preference to skirt the law, it is particularly rich that when asked by Congress why he has deleted climate change policies and refused to address climate change at Interior, he claimed that the law does not require him to do so. Suddenly a strict legal constructionist, Bernhardt referred to the Federal Land and Policy Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), the law  that gives the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) its multiple-use mandate, and claimed it requires him to maximize energy development.

For reference, here is how FLPMA defines multiple use: “The term “multiple use” means the management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people;…”

In other words, the law that Bernhardt is hiding behind to avoid addressing climate change prioritizes a consideration of future needs of the American people—needs that even Bernhardt admits will be impacted by climate change.

Rather than maximizing energy development, the FLPMA statement of policy says that public lands shall be managed “in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values; that, where appropriate, will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use” The FLPMA statement of policy doesn’t even mention energy development.

Ignoring inconvenient science

And while he claims to be very supportive of using the best available science, it apparently only applies when convenient, and certainly not regarding climate change. He has openly ignored, for example, the results of the US government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, approved by his own agency, which describes the dramatic impacts that climate change is having on the agency’s mission.

In fact, rather than acknowledge the overwhelming science behind climate change, he defended his decision to rescind the agency’s climate change policy—a policy requiring Interior to “effectively and efficiently adapt to the challenges posed by climate change to its mission, programs, operations, and personnel.” It is unclear what about that policy he found inappropriate, and how he could possibly square that with the conclusive science in the National Climate Assessment.

A political appointee in the Trump administration does not get the job because he or she is a visionary or proven leader or law-abiding public servant; they get it because they have demonstrated a willingness to skirt the law, parrot the president, and serve specific special interests rather than the needs of the American taxpayer.

Secretary Bernhardt is a perfect fit for this administration, but a very poor fit for a job in public service. My heart goes out to the career civil servants who are struggling to advance the important mission of the Interior Department, on the behalf of taxpayers, in the face of Bernhardt’s hostility toward that mission.