Washington — The departure of US Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the end of the year will clear the way for Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, to at least temporarily lead the agency that oversees the use of public lands.
Zinke is stepping down in the middle of a series of investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest. Like Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist temporarily running the US Environmental Protection Agency since Administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down, Bernhardt is expected to continue his predecessor's deregulatory agenda, perhaps even more effectively given his experience from years of lobbying the agency he may now helm.
President Donald Trump tweeted that Zinke's successor will be announced during the week of December 17.
Zinke was expected to brief the president Monday on the push to expand US offshore drilling, including a proposed five-year offshore leasing plan to be released in January and permitting for seismic drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, according to sources who have spoken to Zinke about his plans.
Zinke is expected to continue to push to expand drilling access in federal waters, including off the country's Mid- and southern Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan coasts. He also is likely to make the case for federal permits for seismic testing in Atlantic waters, which is needed to measure oil and natural gas reserves from Delaware to northern Florida, sources said.
Last week, nine environmental groups sued the Trump administration in an effort to block those seismic tests.
Lobbyists said that they did not expect Interior's plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling to be slowed down by Zinke's departure.
Environmentalists are concerned about Bernhardt being promoted to the position. Groups including the Sierra Club cheered Zinke's imminent departure but said Bernhardt was a potentially dangerous replacement.
The Western Values Project, an organization that aims to "support a responsible approach to managing our nation's public lands," launched a website aimed at Bernhardt, who the group says is "too conflicted to be Interior Secretary."
"At the very least the American public deserves to know more about the man behind the curtain who is actually running the show at Interior and could soon be fully responsible for managing our country's public lands, wildlife and natural resources," said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger.
On the Interior website, Bernhardt is described as an "avid hunter and angler" with in-depth experience in legal matters around active regulation and rulemakings from years spent in both the government and private sector. He held several positions within the department between 2001 and 2009, including a stint as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration. He was confirmed to the position of deputy secretary by the US Senate in a 53-43 vote in July 2017 after telling lawmakers he believed in an "all-of-the-above energy strategy" despite his past role representing oil, gas and water interests as a lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Bernhardt backed Zinke on efforts to develop a new five-year leasing plan for the Outer Continental Shelf that would exclude restrictions from the Obama administration's five-year plan for 2017-2022. He also helped propose a replacement for sage grouse protections released by the Obama administration that would potentially open up more lands to energy resource development.
Dan Naatz, senior vice president of government relations and political affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement that Zinke should be congratulated for recognizing the important role onshore and offshore federal lands play in the future of energy in America. That and other policy efforts to support Trump's vision of "energy dominance" in the U.S. would likely continue if Bernhardt is Zinke's successor.
"Federal lands, by law, are designated for multiple use," Naatz said. "That can be recreation, hunting, mining, or energy production. We're confident that David Bernhardt expertly recognizes and will continue to uphold this law of the land for every American citizen, in his current or any future executive branch position."
In an emailed statement, the American Petroleum Institute did not comment on either Zinke or Bernhardt specifically, but said it has "appreciated the opportunity to share data and publicly comment on regulatory and other Interior Department policies to enable a continuation of America's energy revolution and meet record consumer demand for energy."
"We're in the midst of America's energy age and we're working with government leaders at the local, state and federal level, academia, and other experts to advocate for an agenda that benefits consumers and keeps the environment and economy secure," the oil and natural gas trade organization wrote.
Thomas Pyle, president of the pro-free-market American Energy Alliance, praised Zinke's time in office in a statement issued after the announcement that another member of Trump's Cabinet was stepping down. Streamlining permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act, reforming methane venting and flaring regulations, and other efforts that have "unleashed American energy potential" on federal lands are "just a few of his many significant contributions," Pyle said.
"He has taken a common-sense approach at Interior that benefits all Americans by appropriately balancing the many different missions within the department," Pyle said in a statement. "We look forward to working with his successor to ensure that the Department of Interior remains focused on unlocking the natural resources on federal lands and unleashing American energy potential."
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