WASHINGTON — President Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department — David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who has been accused of conflicts of interest — faced questioning Thursday from senators who must decide whether he is the right person to oversee some 500 million acres of public land as well as the vast expanse of American coastal waters.
Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Mr. Bernhardt said that one of his top priorities would be to focus on reforming the ethical culture of an agency known for a history of corruption and scandals — including, he said in his prepared remarks, “beginning to fundamentally transform the department and bureau level ethics programs to ingrain a culture of ethical compliance.”
The longtime fossil fuel lobbyist also vowed to balance conservation of public lands with a push to develop oil and gas, citing his boyhood in the rural town of Rifle, Colorado, and summers spent on his grandparents’ ranch in Wyoming. “You know that I love the outdoors and that I hunt and fish,” he said.
Outside the Senate office building where he spoke, protesters dressed as polar bears marched bearing signs reading, “Save the Arctic from Bernhardt,” and “Bernhardt: Most Conflicted Member of Trump’s Cabinet.”
The committee must decide whether to send Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote.
Mr. Bernhardt, who has served as deputy secretary since August 2017, has been a powerful force advancing what Mr. Trump has called his “energy dominance” agenda of opening federal lands and waters to oil drilling and energy exploration. He received Mr. Trump’s nomination after the departure of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke amid allegations of ethics misconduct.
He has been dogged through his tenure by accusations of conflicts of interest. In particular, Mr. Bernhardt’s critics contend that, given his past as a lobbyist and lawyer for energy and agricultural interests, his policy decisions stand to benefit former clients.
Mr. Bernhardt has been the central policy architect not only of the administration’s efforts to open public property to energy companies, but also of a plan loosen key provisions of the Endangered Species Act and to weaken safety and environmental rules on oil and gas drilling equipment.
In an interview with The New York Times this year, Mr. Bernhardt said that he was exceptionally sensitive to concerns about ethics issues after having worked in the Interior Department in the George W. Bush administration. The deputy secretary of the agency at the time, J. Steven Griles, was sentenced to prison for lying to a Senate committee about his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“This is an area where I try to be very, very careful,” Mr. Bernhardt said. “My view is, I signed an ethics agreement, I need to be in compliance with that ethics agreement. And I need to get good advice so I don’t make mistakes. Everything I do, I go to our ethics officers first.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Bernhardt will become one of two cabinet officials overseeing the nation’s top environmental agencies. The other is Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Like Mr. Bernhardt, Mr. Wheeler was a deputy who ascended to lead his agency after his former boss — Scott Pruitt, in the case of the E.P.A. — resigned amid allegations of corruption.
Experts in environmental policy say the rise of Mr. Bernhardt and Mr. Wheeler, former advocates for the fossil fuel industry who now lead the very agencies charged with regulating those businesses, represents an extraordinary moment.
“We’ve seen in the past some evidence of industry lobbyists becoming senior officials at environmental agencies, particularly in the Reagan and second Bush administrations,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School. “But I don’t know of a time in the last four decades when so many of these key environmental positions are being held by people with such a strong connection to industry.”
As a partner in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Mr. Bernhardt lobbied for the oil companies Cobalt International Energy and Samson Resources. His legal clients included the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents dozens of oil companies, and Halliburton Energy Services, the oil and gas extraction firm that was led by Dick Cheney before he became vice president.
As deputy secretary of the Interior Department, Mr. Bernhardt was the lead author of a revision of a program to protect tens of millions of acres of habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, a puffy-chested, chicken-like bird found in 10 oil-rich Western states. His final sage grouse plan, issued this month, would strip away protections from about nine million acres of the bird’s habitat, a move that, in a stroke, opened up more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration.
In March last year, a group of oil companies and an industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, wrote to Mr. Bernhardt to thank him for his work on actions “that rescinded and revised mitigation policies that far exceeded statutory authority.” The groups also listed policies they hoped that Mr. Bernhardt would change, including the sage grouse program, which was put in place under President Barack Obama.
Mr. Bernhardt is also the chief author of a major plan, expected to be finalized and made public in the days or weeks after his Senate confirmation, that would allow the federal government to lease almost any part of the entire United States coastline to oil and gas companies for offshore drilling.
This week, a New York Times investigation revealed that Mr. Bernhardt had intervened to block the release of a scientific report revealing the threat presented by three widely used pesticides present to hundreds of endangered species, like the kit fox and the seaside sparrow.
“Bernhardt is working for industry, not the public,” said Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “The Senate should reject him and demand a nominee who will protect our people, waters, land and wildlife.”
Key Republicans are backing Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination, which is expected to pass the Senate. In 2017, he was confirmed to his post as deputy interior secretary on a party-line vote of 53 to 43.
Mr. Bernhardt’s backers note his experience within the department he is set to lead. Mr. Bernhardt was a senior official in the agency during the George W. Bush administration and is widely seen as an experienced and effective policymaker.
“He is an excellent choice and has demonstrated he is more than capable of leading on a permanent basis,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, chairwoman the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the scene of Mr. Bernhardt’s appearance in the Senate on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sent out a news release with a photo of himself and Mr. Bernhardt, captioned, in part, “I am pleased with the president’s decision to nominate David Bernhardt for Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior,” adding, “I look forward to supporting his nomination once again.”
However, Mr. Bernhardt’s opponents have doubled down on a campaign that they hope will turn a handful Republican votes against him.
One advocacy group, the Western Values Project, has opened a television and digital advertising campaign in Arizona and Colorado, aimed at persuading the Republican senators of those states, Martha McSally and Cory Gardner, to vote against Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination. Both of those senators are up for re-election in 2020 in states where polling shows that voters value conservation of public lands and national parks.
Other opponents of Mr. Bernhardt are focused on highlighting accusations of ethical violations by Mr. Bernhardt, some of which stem from a February New York Times investigation that revealed that Mr. Bernhardt had personally directed a policy to weaken endangered species protections on a California fish. That change could shift significant amounts of water from the San Francisco Bay Delta to agricultural irrigation and directly benefit one of his former lobbying clients, the Westlands Water District.
At least four senators and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open an investigation into the matter. It is not known if an investigation is underway.
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