If Zinke is out, his potential replacement may be just as bad (or worse)

David Bernhardt

David Bernhardt

Tami Heilemann, Department of the Interior

Bernhardt would carry on anti-conservation attack

It is widely speculated Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is on his way out, potentially bringing an end to a disastrous and scandal-ridden tenure. But expect the Trump administration’s drill-everywhere approach to continue. 

Zinke has been a remarkably destructive cabinet member, moving the nation backwards on public lands issues and responsible energy development while putting fossil fuel special interests in the driver’s seat and damaging the internal culture of the agency entrusted to him. After a year on the job, we were ready to call him the worst Interior secretary ever, and he has only cemented his claim to infamy since then. 

MORE: 14 bad deeds that make Zinke the worst ever

But decisions to speed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gut Bears Ears National Monument and reverse environmental protections didn’t originate with just one member of the Trump administration. Relatedly, Zinke’s potential exit wouldn’t mean an end to attacks on public lands and the planet. The shortsighted “energy dominance” principles that have guided Zinke’s actions – on behalf of friends in the oil, gas and mining industries – will still be in full effect.

Indeed, it’s possible the next Interior secretary would be even worse, with deeper ties to polluters and special interests, as well as a longer track record of anti-conservation positions.

Even if Secretary Zinke is on his way out, the Interior Department remains disturbingly biased in favor of special interests over the health of American communities and public lands

If Zinke leaves, the acting Interior secretary will be David Bernhardt, his second-in-command, a former energy lobbyist with extensive ties to industry. He is expected to be high on the list of potential replacements for Zinke, too. 

“Unfortunately, even if Secretary Zinke is on his way out, the Interior Department remains disturbingly biased in favor of special interests over the health of American communities and the public lands that they love,” said Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement. "Deputy Secretary Bernhardt has even deeper ties to polluters and Washington's culture of corruption, and he is embroiled in many of the same investigations that have clouded Secretary Zinke’s tenure.” 

What we know about David Bernhardt, longtime lobbyist:

longtime special interest lobbyist and DC insider,  Bernhardt has continually undermined science and tried to shut the public out of decision-making while making it easier for energy companies to drill, mine and pollute.

  • As Zinke’s deputy, has personally overseen efforts to eliminate environmental protections; undermined historic conservation plans for the greater sage-grouse over the objections of western governors and stakeholders across the country; and suggested the agency will aggressively cut protections under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Has pushed intradepartmental rulessome criticize as being designed to cherry-pick the science that goes into Interior policy and imposed arbitrary limits on environmental analysis and public input concerning how public lands and waters are managed.
  • Both as a high-ranking Interior staffer under President George W. Bush and as an energy lobbyist, pushed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He once even presided over a federal report that misrepresented science to downplay threats to caribou herds. 
  • Has ethically problematic ties to oil and other corporate interests. For example, Bernhardt previously lobbied on behalf of a number of energy and mining companies to obstruct rules that cut air pollution and to increase oil and gas drilling.
  • Led efforts to wipe away climate change from key internal policies, after famously testifying at his confirmation hearing Trump’s fossil fuel energy goals take precedence over climate science.

We will be monitoring intelligence on who would be likely to replace Zinke and mobilizing members and supporters to hold them accountable if the choice is as bad as we fear. Please stay tuned for how you can help us hold Trump’s feet to the fire in the weeks and months ahead.