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Ryan Zinke was an embarrassment as Interior secretary. David Bernhardt would be dangerous

Ryan Zinke was an embarrassment as Interior secretary. David Bernhardt would be dangerous
David Bernhardt, then-deputy secretary of the interior, is shown in the library at the Department of the Interior in Washington in October 2018. (Katherine Frey / Washington Post)

Ryan Zinke was an embarrassment as secretary of the Interior, making headlines for his prolific personal and political use of airplanes and helicopters at government expense, and for various displays of pomposity, such as raising and lowering the flag over department headquarters depending on whether he was in the building. All the while, though, the Trump administration’s business of shrinking national monument lands and opening up precious and sensitive areas to oil drilling and mining was carried out by Zinke’s lower-profile and much more dangerous deputy, oil industry attorney and lobbyist David Bernhardt.

Bernhardt is now Trump’s nominee to succeed Zinke and comes before the Senate on Thursday. He should be rejected.

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There is no doubt that Bernhardt is a subject matter expert on issues within the purview of the Department of the Interior. The problem is that his expertise is in circumventing the department’s rules and regulations, and undermining its mission of environmentally responsible stewardship of federal public land.

As an attorney for the huge Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, Bernhardt repeatedly sued the department and drafted legislation to undermine protections for salmon and other endangered species. He was registered as a Westlands lobbyist until 2016.

His law firm’s lobbying clients include Cadiz Inc., which continues to push a controversial plan to pump groundwater out of an environmentally sensitive portion of the Mojave Desert.

At the department, where he has served as acting secretary since Zinke stepped down in December, Bernhardt has sought to expand coastal oil drilling and weaken protections for endangered species such as the sage grouse. He worked to open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and near archaeological and sacred sites adjacent to Chaco Canyon, the Stonehenge of the U.S. Southwest.

Rather than protecting air quality, he protected coal-fired power plants from regulation.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Bernhardt blocked the release of a report finding that three pesticides “jeopardize the continued existence” of hundreds of threatened bird, fish and plant species.

Bernhardt has moved back and forth over the years between the department and the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which represents numerous clients that interact with the Department of the Interior. He started at the firm in 1998 and went to Interior in 2001, working in several department positions during the George W. Bush administration before becoming the department's top lawyer. He went back to the firm after Barack Obama’s election, and then returned to the department after Trump took office.

He is the ultimate symbol of “regulatory capture” — in which a rule-making agency is taken over by the very industry it was supposed to regulate. He was the wrong choice to become deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior two years ago, and is the wrong choice to succeed Zinke in the department’s top job.

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