The U.S. Senate confirmed oil lobbyist David Bernhardt to the post of secretary of the Department of the Interior on April 11. The Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs overseas federal insular territories including the U.S. Virgin Islands, making the post of particular significance to the territory.
Bernhardt had been serving as acting secretary of the Interior since Jan. 2, and President Donald Trump nominated him to serve in a permanent capacity. He was sworn into office as Trump’s choice for deputy secretary in August 2017, according to a release from Interior.
He begins his term of office as the subject of an ethics investigation by his own office’s inspector general. Eight Democratic senators and four ethics watchdog groups requested the investigation.
According to the New York Times, which broke the news of the investigation, complaints include allegations Bernhardt continued to work as a lobbyist despite having already filed paperwork saying he had ceased lobbying; personally intervened to block release of a scientific report showing harmful effects of a particular pesticide; and misused his office to push a policy his former lobbying client wanted pushed.
Bernhardt replaces Trump appointee Ryan Zinke, who had a string of ethics scandals, including one regarding fundraising in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Zinke resigned in December of 2018, facing several ethics investigations, one of which was referred to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.
“I applaud the president’s nomination and Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Bernhardt. The continuity of his leadership will provide the department with stability and beneficial reform and it will provide the people we serve with the commitment to public service they deserve,” Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Doug Domenech said in a statement.
“Our new secretary has a great interest in the U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States. I have known and worked with Secretary Bernhardt for many years, and I admire his incredible work ethic and his passion for public service. He has traveled to the territories and understands the unique issues they face. The department, its mission, the people it represents, and the resources it protects and manages are in good hands with him at the helm,” Domenech said.
Like both Zinke and Bernhardt, Domenech previously worked for organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry. He worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for several years immediately before being tapped by Trump for his current post. Before that, he was Virginia secretary of Natural Resources under Republican Gov. Bob McConnell. He is a strong proponent of fossil fuels who asserts that man has very little role in climate change and that climate change is not a major concern.
As Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt leads an agency with more than 70,000 employees who are stewards for 20 percent of the nation’s lands, including national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other public lands. The department oversees the development of conventional and renewable energy supplies on public lands and waters, is the largest supplier and manager of water in the 17 Western states, and upholds trust responsibilities to the 573 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.
The secretary is also responsible for coordinating federal policy for the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and for administering and overseeing U.S. federal assistance to the freely associated states of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau under the Compacts of Free Association.
The Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Insular and International Affairs, and the Office of Insular Affairs carry out the secretary’s responsibilities for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Insular Affairs administers and oversees federal assistance under the Compacts of Free Association to the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.