While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke grabbed headlines for a dubious land deal and ethically questionable private plane trips, his unobtrusive deputy, David Bernhardt, was hard at work remaking the department that oversees the nation’s public lands and parks. Now that Zinke has succumbed to ethics challenges and will retire from Interior at the end of the year, Bernhardt is perfectly positioned to take his slot. For 17 months now, he’s worked quietly behind the scenes as what the director of the Sierra Club’s public lands program calls “the guy doing the dirty work.”
In the tank
Bernhardt got his start in the swamp, working as a Washington, DC, lobbyist representing a range of fossil fuel clients, including Cobalt International Energy, Delta Petroleum, and Freeport LNG.
Frack, marry, drill
As a senior official in President George W. Bush’s Interior Department, Bernhardt helped craft plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling, keep snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, and exempt frackers from certain clean water regulations.
Leave no trace
After returning to lobbying during the Obama years, Bernhardt briefly headed President-elect Donald Trump’s Interior transition team and was then named Zinke’s No. 2 in April 2017. He recused himself from handling business involving his old lobbying and consulting clients, at least in theory. But he’s known for covering his tracks, limiting the paper trail showing his exact role in decisions that benefit his former clients.
Since 2017, the Interior Department has reassigned dozens of high-level staffers. Bernhardt oversaw the transfer of Yellowstone’s veteran superintendent, who said the shake-up was meant to signal “there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Opening the floodgates
In August, Zinke issued an order to “maximize water supply” for agribusiness in California’s Central Valley—a move that happens to help a powerful water district Bernhardt once represented.
Go faster, bureaucrat! Drill, drill!
Bernhardt, who repped Alaska in its bid to expand oil exploration in ANWR, has taken steps to speed up the environmental reviews for oil projects in the refuge.
Bernhardt is taking aim at the Endangered Species Act and protections for the greater sage grouse—goals of his former clients at the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Safari Club International.
The muck stops here
Federal investigators, including the Interior Department’s inspector general, have opened multiple probes of Zinke’s conduct, including his role in a questionable land deal involving Halliburton’s chairman. With Bernhardt’s star rising, environmental activists now want the inspector general to take a closer look at his possible conflicts of interest. A few of his subordinates have already been investigated. The person usually responsible for giving teeth to the IG’s findings? Bernhardt.
Zinke or swim
What’s next? Possibly a promotion. With Zinke moving on, Bernhardt is ready to step in, whether it is as acting secretary until a new leader is confirmed or permanently. As Joel Clement, an Obama-era Interior official, observes, “Bernhardt knows where all the skeletons are and the strings to pull.”