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President Donald Trump is appointing an oil and gas industry lobbyist to help …
Late last month, Trump nominated lawyer David Bernhardt to serve as Deputy Interior Secretary. Bernhardt would come to the role from his job as a partner at a major law firm that represents energy industry clients across the country. An International Business Times review of Bernhardt’s newly released financial disclosure forms shows he has personally represented Samson Resources, Cobalt International Energy and Westlands Water District — which have significant interests before the Interior Department that Bernhardt will now help run.
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As Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt would preside over the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas drilling on the 245 million acres the bureau administers. If confirmed, Bernhardt would become part of an Interior Department leadership looking to open more land to energy interests, some of which he once represented.
Already, the Trump administration has begun opening up federal lands to the kind of fossil fuel exploration that could benefit Bernhardt’s previous clients. In February, the BLM made its largest lease sale in four years, selling drilling rights on 278 parcels of public land for a total of $129.3 million. In March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ended a moratorium on coal-mining leases on federal land put in place by the Obama administration.
Zinke’s decision followed an executive order by President Trump calling on agencies to review regulations that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.”
“Unable To Provide Reasonable Assurance That It Is Meeting Its Environmental Responsibilities”
Only a few weeks after Bernhardt’s nomination, the government’s General Accountability Office issued a report chastising the Bureau of Land Management for its oversight of oil and gas drilling. The report said the agency has been failing to adequately document how it uses waivers to let oil and gas firms get around environmental rules and drill on federal lands.
“Because BLM does not consistently track exception request data or have a consistent process for considering requests and clearly documenting decisions, BLM may be unable to provide reasonable assurance that it is meeting its environmental responsibilities,” the GAO wrote in a report released last month.
The GAO investigation surveyed 42 BLM offices, and found fewer than half tracked data on exception requests. The GAO also found that BLM did not use data from site inspections to evaluate whether its permit process was protecting the environment.
The report came shortly after a Gallup poll showed that 53 percent of respondents opposed oil exploration on federal lands — up from 34 percent in 2012. The upward trend in opposition over the last five years occurs at the same time gas prices have dropped. As Gallup notes, in March 2012, the price of a gallon of gas was $3.91. By February 2017, gas had fallen to an average price of $2.42 a gallon.
“All Legislation Regarding The Leasing And Development Of Energy”
Bernhardt has worked for energy clients of lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck after leaving a high-ranking job in the George W. Bush administration’s Interior Department in 2009. While Bernhardt is no longer lobbying clients on behalf of his employer, the firm’s website still listed him as its Natural Resources Department chair as of Wednesday.
While Bernhardt is subject to a January executive order requiring all presidential appointees to pledge to recuse themselves from issues related to former clients for two years after taking office, appointees can receive waivers to that rule. Those waivers have been secret, which last week prompted the head of the Office of Government Ethics to request copies of all waivers be sent to his office by June 1.
Federal lobbying records show Bernhardt has repeatedly lobbied on behalf of Samson Resources Company on “issues regarding the development of energy on federal lands.” Samson Resources leases 287,000 acres of land from the BLM, according to records provided to IBT by the Bureau. Bernhardt’s public disclosure filings show he has provided legal services to Noble Energy, which is leasing 202,000 acres from the Bureau.
Bernhardt has also repeatedly lobbied on “all legislation regarding the leasing and development of energy on the Outer Continental Shelf” on behalf of Cobalt International Energy. Drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf is overseen by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which just last week ruled that four bids submitted by Cobalt for offshore tracts in the Gulf were “acceptable.”
While Bernhardt has provided legal services to other oil and gas industry clients, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, much of his lobbying efforts have been on behalf of the Westlands Water District, one of the most profitable agricultural areas in the world. The water district has been involved with a long-standing dispute, which included a billion dollar lawsuit, with the Interior Department over costs of a federal water project and responsibility for the disposal of water polluted with selenium.