WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says he's nominating a Colorado native with lobbying ties to U.S. energy companies to lead the Interior Department.
David Bernhardt, currently Interior's acting head, would succeed Ryan Zinke if the Senate approves his nomination. Zinke left the department Jan. 2 amid ethics investigations.
Trump tweeted Monday that Bernhardt "has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived."
In a statement, Bernhardt called it a "humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, commonsense vision of our president."
Bernhardt's reputation as a technocrat working efficiently behind the scenes stands as a 180-degree turn from that of his flamboyant predecessor.
Zinke grabbed attention when he rode a horse to his first day at Interior. Zinke soon was garnering headlines over allegations involving travel and allegations of possible conflicts of interest.
Bernhardt, 49, has remained low-profile as Trump weighed him and a half-dozen other reported contenders — chiefly, Western lawmakers — as successors to Zinke.
As acting secretary, Bernhardt drew criticism in recent weeks from environmental groups, tribes and others for continuing to process paperwork for oil and gas projects while other agencies were closed for routine work during this winter's partial government shutdown.
The Interior Department called its effort important to bolstering U.S. energy independence.
Bernhardt first served in the department under President George W. Bush, working for another Coloradan, Interior Secretary Gale Norton. He had been deputy secretary under Zinke.
The Interior Department oversees millions of acres across Colorado, including the national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It also oversees energy development on federal lands in the state.
Bernhardt -- formerly with Denver-based law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he co-chaired the firm's natural resources practice -- worked as a lobbyist and lawyer on behalf of several oil and gas companies and other interests that sometimes have regulatory matters before the department.
Republicans say Bernhardt's revolving-door experience makes him an informed regulator in matters before the agency. Democrats and environmental groups say he's vulnerable to conflicts of interest.
Trump picked Bernhardt over former Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis and Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, both of whom were under consideration, Bloomberg News reported last week. Lummis had interviewed for the post in recent weeks and had strong backing from House conservatives, Bloomberg said.
“This is fantastic news for Colorado,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said in a statement after news of Trump's choice broke. Gardner is a member of the Senate's Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings on Bernhardt's nomination.
“I’ve known David Bernhardt for many years and have worked closely with him over the last two years to advance Colorado priorities," Gardner said. "As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day. From moving the Bureau of Land Management to the West to promoting conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Coloradans will be lucky to have David lead our Interior Department. I look forward to supporting him throughout the confirmation process.”
"David Bernhardt ... brings tremendous leadership with him from our home state of #Colorado and I look forward to a swift confirmation process," U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, tweeted.
"I hope Acting Secretary Bernhardt is confirmed quickly. He and the entire @Interior Department do great work in my home state of Colorado," tweeted U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.
Environmentalists were quick to sound their opposition Monday.
“David Bernhardt’s nomination is an affront to America’s parks and public lands," said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. "As an oil and gas lobbyist, Bernhardt pushed to open vast swaths of public lands for drilling and mining. As deputy secretary, he was behind some of the worst policy decisions of Secretary Zinke’s sad tenure, including stripping protections for imperiled wildlife. Bernhardt even used the government shutdown to approve drilling permits for companies linked to his former clients.
"Given the chance, David Bernhardt will pick up right where Zinke left off and continue selling out America’s public lands to the highest special interest bidders," said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based Western Values Project. "Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist and the ultimate DC-swamp creature. ... He is simply too conflicted to be our next Interior Secretary, and the Senate should vote his nomination down.”
As Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics reported in a July 2018 profile, Bernhardt grew up in Rifle on Colorado's Western Slope. His father was a county extension agent and his mother was in the real estate business.
He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and a law degree from George Washington University in Washington.
He met Zinke when he volunteered to help with the Trump transition team, then helped prepare Zinke for his confirmation hearings as Interior secretary.
Both of Colorado's U.S. senators -- Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet -- voted to confirm Bernhardt as deputy Interior secretary in July 2017, but most of Bennet's Democratic colleagues opposed the nominee, as did several environmental groups. The confirmation vote was 53-43.
“I’m [Zinke's] understudy,” Bernhardt said last July. “I do whatever he doesn’t want to do. Every secretary wants one of those, the guy who does the other stuff.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt held various Interior Department positions, including as solicitor and deputy chief of staff to Norton. He once worked for former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction.
Shortly after Zinke's exit was announced, Jon Hrobsky, an attorney who worked with Bernhardt in President George W. Bush’s Interior Department and at Brownstein, told the Washington Examiner that Bernhardt "has more experience in that building working on these issues than any predecessor. The uniqueness of David for this job is there has never been anyone more qualified to do it."
At Brownstein, Bernhardt's client list ranged from offshore oil and gas drillers like Eni Petroleum, onshore drillers like Noble Energy and Halliburton Energy Services, and industry trade associations, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the National Ocean Industries Association.
At one point he sued the Interior Department on behalf of a client, California's Westlands Water District, the Washington Post reported last November.
The Post said that in order to keep track of his potential conflicts of interest as an Interior official, Bernhardt "carries a list the size of a credit card of 22 former clients still covered by his ethics recusal, including oil industry heavyweights like Halliburton."
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said lawmakers would be watching to see whether Bernhardt's former industry ties influence his policy decisions.
"David Bernhardt spent much of his career lobbying for fossil fuel and agricultural interests, and the president putting him in charge of regulating his former clients is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration," Grijalva said in a statement.
Mark Harden and Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics, the Associated Press and the Washington Examiner contributed.