Donald Trump,David Bernhardt
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt delivers remarks on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Washington. (Photo: AP)
Indefinitely Wild

DOI Is Speeding Harm to Lands Before Election Day

As a Trump reelection looks less certain, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is accelerating work for oil and gas industries

Donald Trump,David Bernhardt

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Last week, an analysis published by public lands advocacy group The Center for Western Priorities, revealed 74 policy changes and 120 alterations to Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections that the Department of the Interior intends to take before the November elections. All of the actions benefit the oil, gas, or agriculture industries. Some of the benefactors include former lobbying clients of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

It can be hard to comprehend the ways in which the Trump administration’s corruption impacts your daily life. If Jared Kushner accepts tens of millions of dollars from secret foreign investors while conducting foreign policy without Congressional oversight, does it really trickle down to your bottom line? But that’s different at the Department of the Interior. There, former lobbyists for, and employees of the industries it regulates, are actively trying to destroy the world we live in. 

For example, one of the proposed policy changes strips environmental protections from 200,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in central Montana, opening up the area for petroleum extraction. An early version of the proposal solicited local input and set aside areas of particular natural beauty, biodiversity, or importance for protection, while allowing drilling elsewhere. Then, without explanation and behind closed doors, DOI decided last May to move ahead without that public input and open the whole area up to drilling. That area is where I go elk hunting. It holds some of the largest bulls in the state, but that population could be threatened if drilling goes forward in their habitat. Similar impacts are likely coming to public lands near you. 

Western Priorities also uncovered plans to strip ESA protections from the American Burying Beetle, which would open up areas in Oklahoma for oil drilling that are currently protected. Who benefits from that? The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), an oil and gas lobbying group that has been pushing to strike the beetle from the list of protected species for years. Interior Secretary Bernhardt counts IPAA among his former clients

And Bernhardt is, of course, the man who led a decade-long campaign to strip consideration of climate change in determining a species’ status under the ESA. 

Among the other actions that DOI intends to take before November are policies and changes that would reduce the quality of the air you breath, worsen the impacts of global warming, open up new areas of national monuments to off-road vehicle use, and increase the likelihood of oil spills caused by offshore drilling by eliminating safety measures put in place after the Deepwater Horizon accident. DOI also plans to remove the gray wolf from the list protected under the Endangered Species Act, along with 16 other species. Numerous other species will be impacted by various downgrades in their ESA status or alterations to the regulations protecting them. You’ll find details of these actions and more in the two tables embedded here. 

“They see the clock ticking, worry they may only have one year left in power, and are trying to do everything in their power for their clients,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities. 

Separately, Western Values Project, another public lands advocacy group, reported that Bernhardt was the “architect” of recent changes the Trump Administration proposed to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which would remove the need for the government to consider the effects of climate change when permitting infrastructure projects like oil pipelines, mines, and dams. Western Values reports that 14 former clients of Bernhardt’s would benefit from those changes. That list also includes the IPAA, which would be granted a categorical exemption from NEPA review, and Westlands Water District, a large agricultural holding in California and former client that’s already benefited from Bernhardt’s tenure.

“Gutting America’s longstanding and widely-supported environmental protection law is a disgrace, providing even further proof that Bernhardt has turned Interior into his own personal lobbying shop at the expense of our outdoor heritage,” says Jayson O’Neil, the deputy director of Western Values Project. 

“The Trump administration will continue to put our public lands at risk until Congress holds its culture of corruption accountable,” says Chris Saeger, a spokesperson for Western Values Project. “Americans should call their elected representatives and demand Secretary Bernhardt stop giving away our birthright to the same special interests that used to pay him big bucks.” Short of effective congressional oversight, DOI plans to take every action you see here by the end of the year. 

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