By Linnaea Honl-Stuenkel and Lauren White
August 26, 2019

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt recently announced significant rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), just nine days after the two year cooling off period in his ethics recusal expired. As a former lobbyist, the ethics rules banned him from decisions involving his former oil and gas industry clients for two years. That didn’t stop him from reportedly spearheading the regulation revisions which “appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live,” potentially in violation of the ethics pledge he made to the American people. This deregulation effort — shepherded by a former oil industry lobbyist — exemplifies how the revolving door has benefited industry at the expense of endangered animals and the environment.

Before joining Interior, Bernhardt lobbied specifically on the ESA with his former employer, the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, from 20112016. As a part of his lobbying work, Bernhardt advocated for rollback of protections for the endangered delta smelt fish, which experts said would put dozens of other fish at risk, as well as protections for water birds and orcas. Bernhardt is already under investigation for failure to abide by his ethics pledge by working on the water infrastructure law that he had previously lobbied for. The timing of this new ESA revision, that echoes his work to rollback protections, just days after his two-year ethics recusal period ended indicates another potential violation of his ethics waiver. CREW launched an investigation by sending a Freedom of Information Act request to Interior, into whether Bernhardt received ethics advice on his involvement in the revision to ESA regulation and whether his actions are consistent with ethics advice.

This revision is part of a long pattern for the Trump Interior Department of rolling back protections for endangered species. In March, for example, Interior lifted Obama-era restrictions for oil, gas, and mining development on millions of acres of previously protected sage grouse habitat. This new revision appears to be even more sweeping, because it allows classifications to be shifted based on economic concerns, which means that the same industries with connections to Interior stand to profit massively. This is no coincidence, as Trump’s presidency sparked a “lobbying blitz” from several industries to limit the ESA, despite the law’s 90% approval rating. So far in 2019, industries connected to the Interior Department have continued to spend significant sums on lobbying, with the mining industry spending more than $9.5 million, and the oil and gas industry spending $63.5 million.

The industries that poured money into advocating for the rollbacks had good reason to believe that their advocacy was well-received. As deputy secretary, Bernhardt argued for a rollback of the ESA in a public op-ed and praised deregulation in at least one speech to industry representatives. According to documents obtained by CREW, in a speech to mining executives at the Trump Hotel, Bernhardt framed the Department’s agenda as “leveling the playing field” for industry. He told his audience, “[w]e are trying to get out of your way,” and “we are going to be relentless in trying to minimize regulatory and permitting uncertainty.” 

Berhardt is not the only member of Interior leadership that is deeply connected to industry. Interior Acting Solicitor Dan Jorjani runs the ethics program, and is a former advisor to the Koch brothers, who made their fortune in fossil fuels. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined a gold mining company as a board member and government relations consultant after overseeing mining projects on federal land as secretary.

Limiting protections for endangered species has long been a priority for the deep-pocketed  mining, and oil and gas industries, which capitalized on the opportunity presented by the Trump administration. Bernhardt’s involvement in the ESA highlights a systemic problem across the leadership of the Interior Department. When the officials leading the agency have close connections to industry and disregard ethics laws, industry leaders may seize the opportunity to push policies that are best for their bottom line. Many agency officials return to industry after their government career, where they may profit from the policies they create. This creates an incentive structure to accommodate industry. Investigating Bernhardt’s ethics waiver and ensuring that officials across the agency are abiding by ethics laws is fundamental to ensuring policy decisions are being made for the benefit of the environment–not an individual’s or an industry’s bottom line.