J. Scott Applewhite / AP
During a strenuous confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Donald Trump, the nation's largest country steward, told senators he would take steps to avoid conflicts of interest and improve the internal department's ethics guidelines.
A former lobbyist, David Bernhardt, who represented the interests of oil and gas, was confronted with questions on his own ethics during his brief career as Deputy Interior Minister.
Democrats and environmental groups accuse the former Deputy Interior Minister of making political decisions that favor former clients.
Bernhardt defended himself before the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, saying he has and will continue to work on reducing regulatory burdens without sacrificing environmental outcomes.
During his opening speech, a spectator behind Bernhardt put on a green "Swamp Thing" mask and continued to listen.
Bernhardt knows neither criticism nor the Washington Theater.
The 49-year-old lawyer and Colorado-born relative has been working in Washington for decades as a lobbyist and in an earlier role in the Home Office during the George W. Bush administration.
Bernhardt played his role as Westerners and Conservationists in his opening remarks.
"I love nature and hunt and […] The Republicans praised his experience and experience in dealing with land, water and energy issues, calling them the reason he was to be confirmed – an end that is unlikely given the Republican control of the Senate
Energy Dominance Agenda
But it is Bernhardt's time as a lobbyist and his role in Trump's "energy dominance" portrayal, which has received the most attention from his critics.
With Bernhardt in leadership, the Interior Department, which manages about one-fifth of the entire country in the United States, has opened vast tracts of land to oil and gas leasing. It also tried to open federal waters for oil and gas exploration. The move has helped billions in leasing sales, but some are concerned about environmental costs and whether Bernhardt has to withdraw from certain policy decisions.
"They are so in conflict," said Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, during the hearing. "You have to disqualify yourself from so many things that I do not know how you'll spend your day," or risk violating the agency's ethics standards.
Wyden cited newly published documents and a New York Times history stating that Bernhardt had blocked the publication of a scientific report stating that three major pesticides could pose risks to more than a thousand endangered species.
Bernhardt said he had set his release because it needed further legal review.
It was not the first controversial political decision that Bernhardt had made or was involved in.
Deputy Secretary From the inside, he endeavored to revise the protection plans for the greater wise-hen, a chicken-sized bird that lives over tens of millions of acres of the American West, causing the development of oil and gas in a critical habitat for the bird. The final plans were released earlier this month.
As a lawyer, Bernhardt advocated for Halliburton Energy Services and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trading group representing dozens of oil companies. Many oil and gas companies said the earlier Obama era conservation plans for the ground bird were too restrictive.
Bernhardt was also criticized for his involvement in water issues in California, where he represented the Fresno-based Westlands, Water District, the country's largest agricultural water district.
An investigation by the KQED member station revealed that the Trump administration had ordered state biologists to conduct an environmental analysis of water distribution under unprecedented time limits and with little transparency.
"With nearly two dozen former clients who have done business in front of the agency, David Bernhardt is an interesting conflict of interest that is not suitable as interior minister," says Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.
Ethics allegations and numerous investigations led to the demise of Bernhardts predecessor and Trump's first leader of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke.
Former Home Secretary and Montana Congressman resigned late last year, citing unjustified attacks on himself and his family.