President Trump's plan to put a greater focus on maximizing fossil fuel production from vast expanses of land and sea under federal control is off to a rocky start.
Trump's nominee for deputy director of the Interior Department, David Bernhardt, is under fire from conservation and good government groups this week over conflicts of interest stemming from his career as a lobbyist and a past scandal involving scientific documents that watchdogs say were altered to downplay the impacts of oil drilling on a herd of caribou roaming the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group representing government workers, has re-released documents implicating Bernhardt in an apparent effort at the Interior Department to skew a scientific report to members of Congress on the Arctic caribou herd in favor of the oil industry back in 2001. PEER director Jeff Ruch said Bernhardt "shares an unfortunate affinity for alternative facts."
"The Senate needs to thoroughly investigate his role in this blatant political manipulation of science before considering his nomination," Ruch said in a statement on Thursday.
In addition, the GOP's plan to deregulate the oil and gas industry on lands under Interior Department control hit a major snag in the Senate this week. With the help of three Republican defectors, Democrats blocked the repeal of the so-called methane rule, an Obama-era regulation that caps the amount of climate-warming methane that oil and gas companies operating on public lands can spew directly into the atmosphere. Trump had promised to sign the legislation into law.
Conservationists argue that allowing private fossil fuel companies to waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of natural gas every year on lands that are technically owned by the public is a bad deal for both taxpayers and the environment. Methane is a major contributor to global warming and a valuable fuel, but drilling companies would often rather vent excess gas from oil wells directly into the atmosphere than spend the money to trap it and, in many cases, pay millions of dollars in royalties to the public.
"In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today," stated Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, after the vote on Wednesday. "This morning, the Senate voted against repealing the [Bureau of Land Management's] Methane Waste Rule, thereby showing they understand that reducing waste from our public lands and cleaning up our air is the right thing to do."
The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is one of several agencies within the powerful Interior Department, which is charged with managing vast tracks of land and ocean owned by the government. If Trump has his way, Bernhardt will be second in command at the agency behind Ryan Zinke, a Republican former House member from Montana who was confirmed by the Senate in February.
"President Trump is putting one of the biggest lobbyists in the DC swamp right into the heart of the Department of the Interior," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, of Bernhardt. "Instead of draining the swamp, the only thing that [Trump] and David Bernhardt would be draining is the Mojave National Preserve of water and likely the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of oil."
Bernhard worked as a lobbyist for a firm called Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck before joining Trump's transition team at the Interior Department in November, according to the Center for Western Priorities. Scott Slater, his co-chair at the firm, also serves as CEO of Cadiz, Inc., a company that wants to tap an aquifer the size of Rhode Island beneath the Mojave Desert to pipe water to southern California.
Environmentalists say the Interior Department policies for managing scarce water resources in western states will have a big impact whether Cadiz can obtain the permits it needs for the project. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck owns 200,000 shares of Cadiz stock, which has more than doubled in price since Trump won the presidency last year.
With Trump in the White House and majorities in both the House and the Senate, Republicans have so far been successful in repealing Obama-era oil and gas regulations and placing industry-linked politicians in key posts at federal natural resources agencies. However, the defeat of the methane rule repeal effort suggests that Bernhardt may face a tough road towards confirmation in the Senate.
The industry came out swinging against the methane rule as Trump took office, placing op-eds in news outlets in Washington and across the west. Oil and gas companies give most of their massive campaign contributions to Republican politicians, and in a recent op-ed in the Morning Consult, American Energy Alliance President Thomas Pyle made it clear that the industry would accept "no excuses" from lawmakers over efforts to repeal the rule.
Legislation to repeal the methane rule under the Congressional Review Act was approved along party lines in the House. However, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Susan Collins sided with a united Democratic block and defeated the repeal effort in a tight 51-49 vote. All three Republicans are known for acknowledging contemporary climate science and do not count the oil and gas industry among their top sources of campaign contributions.
Since taking office, Trump has ordered federal agencies to gut environmental protections, approve controversial oil pipelines and allow private energy companies to expand drilling and mining operations on public lands. He is also attempting to reverse President Obama's order sparing large swaths of the sensitive Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from oil and gas drilling, a move that environmental groups argue is illegal.
Environmental and Indigenous groups vowed to fight Trump at every turn and have filed a litany of lawsuits challenging the president's plans to exploit the nation's fossil fuel reserves at the expense of public health and the environment.
As Trump prepared to take office, groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council warned Republicans that they would face heavy public backlash if they escalated their attacks on environmental protections at the behest of the energy lobby. The scrutiny hanging over Bernhardt and the Republican defections on the methane rule repeal suggest Trump may only be able to push his fossil fuel-laden energy agenda so far.