By Alison Cagle, Earthjustice
Who would want to make it harder for vulnerable species to survive on an increasingly imperiled planet? That would be David Bernhardt, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior.
Today, Bernhardt dramatically weakened the rules that implement the Endangered Species Act. He is attempting to weaken the popular environmental law that serves as the last safety net for animals and plants facing extinction.
These rollbacks are a gift to industry, removing legal barriers that protect endangered species and their habitats from harmful fossil fuel extraction operations. The changes include permitting actions that gradually destroy listed species, depriving newly listed threatened species from receiving automatic protections, and prioritizing economic considerations into decisions, that until now, have been purely based on scientific analysis.
As a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, Bernhardt is continuing his role as the fossil fuel industry’s liaison to the government. Earthjustice has tracked Bernhardt’s record of industry-favoring deregulation that directly — and often illegally — harms protected species.
When his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, left the top spot at the Interior in 2017, Earthjustice sounded the alarm about the people Bernhardt really represents:
Bernhardt, who became Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August 2017, is “a walking conflict of interest” who served as the Interior Department’s top lawyer under George W. Bush — and went on to a lucrative career as a legal adviser for timber companies, mining companies, and oil and gas interests. Since returning to the Interior Department under Trump, he has quietly implemented policy decisions that benefit his former corporate polluter clients.
Before rising to secretary, he was a key connector between polluting industries and a department charged with overseeing public lands:
A former top lobbyist for the oil and gas industry at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt has an ex-client list that reads like a who’s-who of deep-pocketed dirty polluter interests: Halliburton, Statoil, Noble Energy, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, among several others. He used the infamous revolving door to push polluters’ agendas as a lobbyist, previously working to scrap protections for endangered species while in the Bush administration.
Today, Bernhardt is working behind the scenes — often after secret meetings with special interests — to benefit many of the same companies and industry allies who he once represented and who stand to profit from the Trump-Zinke agenda. He sees endangered species and national monuments as little more than roadblocks to energy extraction, as his recent Washington Post op-ed shows.
Many cuts to animal protections proposed under Bernhardt have directly benefited his former clients, at the risk of extinction for endangered species:
Another former client, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, benefited when Bernhardt oversaw proposed revisions to agreements for the management of sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states. The revisions eliminate protections for the imperiled bird in favor of petroleum development. And while the sage grouse is not listed as endangered, it has been protected by the Endangered Species Act, a law that Bernhardt has been dead set against since his time as the Interior Department’s Solicitor General in the early 2000s. Bernhardt has continued his campaign against the Endangered Species Act since returning to the Interior Department, with proposals to allow regulators to consider the economic impacts in decisions about listing particular species, rather than just looking at available science. In a Washington Post op-ed authored by Bernhardt, he calls for “creative, incentive-based conservation” to bring “our government’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act into the 21st century.
We are fighting the administration’s reckless abandonment of endangered species in court. Learn more about animals that have been saved from the brink of extinction thanks to the Endangered Species Act.