Colorado native David Bernhardt was tapped Monday by President Donald Trump to be secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, prompting praise from Republicans and quick condemnation from Democrats and environmentalists.
Bernhardt has been serving as the agency’s acting head since the resignation of former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was facing ethics investigations.
Bernhardt is from Rifle and was an attorney and lobbyist for the high-powered, Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Trump tweeted Monday that Bernhardt “has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived.”
Bernhardt first served in the department under President George W. Bush. He had been the agency’s deputy secretary under Zinke.
Bernhardt’s clients as a lobbyist and attorney have included several oil and gas companies and other interests that have had regulatory matters before the department.
“It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our president,” Bernhardt said in a written statement.
Republicans say Bernhardt’s revolving-door experience makes him an informed regulator in matters before the agency. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, called the nomination “fantastic news for Colorado,” vowing to support him through the confirmation process.
“He brings tremendous leadership with him from our home state of Colorado and I look forward to a swift confirmation process,” U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, said in a tweet.
Democrats and environmental groups, however, say he’s vulnerable to conflicts of interest and are likely to mount loud opposition to his nomination.
The Center for Western Priorities on Monday immediately responded to Bernhardt’s nomination by calling it “an affront to America’s parks and public lands.”
Staffers for Colorado’s Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, did not immediately say if he would be supporting Bernhardt’s nomination as Interior secretary. He did vote in favor of Bernhardt’s confirmation as deputy Interior secretary.
“David Bernhardt’s nomination to lead the Interior Department is an affront to the department’s mission of protecting our natural resources,” said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who voted against Bernhardt’s earlier confirmation as deputy Interior secretary. “We’re talking about a fossil fuel lobbyist with a history of fighting against environmental protections. Americans deserve better.”
Other Coloradans have been tapped to be Interior secretary before. Democrat Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator and Colorado attorney general, held the role under President Barack Obama. Republican Gale Norton, another former Colorado attorney general, was in the position under George W. Bush.
Bernhardt’s nomination will go before the U.S. Senate for a confirmation hearing and vote. If he is confirmed, Bernhardt will be overseeing vast amounts of the nation’s public lands through agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management — both of which have a large presence in Colorado.
Bernhardt’s reputation as a technocrat working efficiently behind the scenes stands as a 180-degree turn from that of his flamboyant predecessor. Zinke grabbed attention when he rode a horse to his first day at Interior. Zinke soon was garnering headlines over allegations involving travel and allegations of possible conflicts of interest.
Bernhardt has remained low-profile as Trump weighed him and a half-dozen other reported contenders — chiefly, Western lawmakers — as successors to Zinke.
As acting secretary, Bernhardt drew criticism in recent weeks from environmental groups, tribes and others for continuing to process paperwork for oil and gas projects while other agencies were closed for routine work during this winter’s partial government shutdown.
Under leadership of Zinke and Bernhardt, the Interior Department has pushed to open more Alaskan wilderness and offshore waters to oil and gas development.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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