Department of Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is said to be on the short list to take over after embattled Interior chief Ryan Zinke, who is facing a litany of congressional investigations, told President Trump over the weekend that he is stepping down.
Zinke, who indicated to the president that he would soon resign, reportedly called several investigations into his leadership “vicious and politically motivated attacks” that had “created an unfortunate distraction.” Trump took to Twitter to confirm that the administration will announce a new secretary this week.
Bernhardt, considered Zinke’s likely successor, previously served as an attorney with the Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, which has lobbied on behalf of the oil and gas industry. The cabinet post requires Senate confirmation.
Bernhardt may have an easier time passing the muster of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Sen. Joe Manchin (R-WV) was recently named ranking member. Manchin backed Bernhardt for the deputy post at Interior last year, following a contentious fight for confirmation.
Several Republican lawmakers are also said to be under consideration to replace Zinke. They include Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Raul Labrador of Idaho, Jeff Denham of California and Rob Bishop of Utah, as well as Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Denham and Heller lost their bids for re-election last month, while Labrador is leaving the House after a failed gubernatorial bid. Sandoval was term limited.
Two years ago, McMorris Rodgers was widely expected to be nominated by Trump to lead Interior, but Zinke emerged as a surprise pick.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said she was “disappointed” that Zinke was resigning.
“He has been a strong partner for western states and for Alaska, in particular,” Murkowski said. “After years of frustration with [Interior], he came in and took a very different approach — he listened to us, built a great team, and worked with us to advance our priorities.”
Murkowski cited Zinke’s “efforts to secure energy dominance,” as well as his support for opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, aka the 1002 Area, to oil and gas development. “Secretary Zinke has accomplished a lot of good things for our country,” she said. “We will miss him, but wish him the best.”
The oil and gas industry signaled its willingness to work with whoever is appointed to replace Zinke.
“As with past administrations, we’ve 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,” American Petroleum Institute spokeswoman Sabrina Fang told NGI on Monday. “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.”
Zinke’s hold on the top job at Interior began to unravel in July, when Interior’s Office of Inspector General said it would launch a probe into allegations he violated conflict of interest laws by cooperating with Halliburton Co. Chairman Dave Lesar to advance land developments in Whitefish, MT, Zinke’s hometown. The Justice Department reportedly launched a probe into whether Zinke was using his office for personal gain in October.
Zinke also is under fire for ordering a review of federal conservation plans of the greater sage grouse; supporting a reduced size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah; a proposal to reorganize Interior into 12 “unified regions;” and involvement in excluding Florida from a draft proposal to expand U.S. offshore drilling.
In what may have been his last public appearance as Interior secretary, Zinke last week spoke briefly at a signing ceremony at the headquarters for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He lauded EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers for narrowing the definition of which waterbodies deserve protection under the federal Clean Water Act.
“Just like sage grouse, this [revised definition] doesn’t remove any protections,” he said. “What it does is it puts the management decisions back where they should be — with the people that work the land, that hunt, that own the land, and the communities that we all share our greatest bounty.”
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, was first elected to the House in 2014 and served on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. He won re-election in 2016, but was tapped by Trump to lead Interior shortly afterward.
Last year, Zinke signed separate secretarial orders to rewrite the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan; jump-start oil and gas production in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska; and to streamline the permitting process for drilling on federal lands. He also vowed to make unspecified changes to the work culture at Interior.
“Zinke will go down as the worst Interior secretary in history,” said Center for Biological Diversity Executive Director Kieran Suckling. “His slash-and-burn approach was absolutely destructive for public lands and wildlife. Allowing David Bernhardt to continue to call the shots will still be just as ugly. Different people, same appetite for greed and profit.”
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