Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently finalized plans to strip the greater sage grouse’s protected status by opening Federal land in 10 oil-rich Western states to drilling. On March 20th, only days after that decision, a Federal Judge ruled that the Obama administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had ignored climate change impacts in 2015 and 2016 when it granted oil leases. In Wyoming alone, those leases netted oil companies $66 million by drilling on the imperiled sage grouses’ habitat.
Known as The Big Empty—an immense sea of sage brush once stretched 500,000 miles across North America. In addition to the sage grouse, this habitat also shelters eagles, antelope, badgers, lizards, rabbits, wrens, prairie dogs, songbirds, hawks and migrating birds.
Rudolph Contreras, a US District Court judge in Washington D.C., ruled that the BLM neglected to address climate change impacts when it leased about 300,000 acres of Wyoming land parcels to oil and gas companies for drilling.
The decision will block further development in the state until the BLM has evaluated the potential climate change impact of leasing approximately 500 square miles of Wyoming land, The Washington Post reports.
However, the Wyoming ruling will not affect the Interior Department’s plans to strip restrictions on oil and natural gas leasing that will destroy the sage grouse and its habitat in 10 other states along the sagebrush sea, including: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
As oil and natural gas prices spiked in 2017, both Republicans and Democrats in Western states increased drilling, spelling disaster for the sage brush ecosystem.
A Uniquely American Bird
Under President Obama’s benevolent wing, the sage grouse, dubbed a “uniquely American bird” by Washington Post reporters, Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin, enjoyed protected status, even though its habitat failed to meet the required standard for “endangered species”, as a collaboration of groups had begun restoring their habitat during President Obama’s second term.
Yet, because the bird’s population had plummeted by as much as 90 percent after drilling and mining operations disrupted its habitat, the Obama Administration’s BLM created a buffer around the ground-nesting, chicken-sized birds, protecting them from oil drilling as well as gold mining, natural gas drilling and cattle grazing on property the government leases to businesses, Fears writes in a September, 22, 2015 Washington Post story.
Revenue from Federal and State Leases Climbed 800 Percent in Wyoming
“The current increase in leasing activity follows a lull that tracks closely to the Obama years,” Heather Davis of the Casper Star Tribune writes.
“The price of oil had begun to rise in 2017, after a historic dive.
“The combined factors of a supportive administration and the favorable price of crude preceded what’s become an incredible pace of leasing in Wyoming,” Davis writes.
“Revenue from leases, on both federal and state lands rose by 800 percent from 2016 to 2017,” after Donald Trump took office, she concludes.
Even Worse than Zinke
The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears writes that the sage grouse males “dance spectacularly to attract females during mating season.”
However, their mating rituals are about to be destroyed (at least outside of Wyoming), by Acting Secretary Bernhardt who, as Deputy Secretary to Ryan Zinke, pushed to hire more employees to negotiate Western state leases.
The Federal judge’s order did not include rescinding the leases, just taking a harder look at climate change impacts.
Politico’s Ben Lefebvre refers to Bernhardt as a “walking conflict of interest,” and “just as bad as Zinke, or even worse.”
“David Bernhardt took the lead in softening the department’s protections for endangered species, which will make it easier for companies to drill on ecologically sensitive lands,” Lefebvre writes in December, after Bernhardt’s nomination for Interior Secretary was announced.
The nomination alarmed environmentalists, he writes, “some of whom had said they might prefer to see a distracted, scandal-plagued Zinke stay in the job,” rather than a Washington insider who can stealthfully advance the Trump Administration’s “energy dominant” agenda, as the Administration calls its cruel and destructive environmental policies.
Trump’s Most Conflicted Cabinet Nominee
In an article entitled “David Bernhardt Is President Trump’s Most Conflicted Cabinet Nominee,” Marc Rehmann, the senior campaign manager for the Law of the Land Project at the Center for American Progress, writes that:
“Currently serving as the acting interior secretary since Zinke’s departure, Bernhardt is a former oil and gas lobbyist—and has so many conflicts of interest that he must carry around a list of former clients to remember them.”
“In fact, a Center for American Progress analysis has determined that Bernhardt has the dubious distinction of being the most conflicted of all 31 of President Trump’s Cabinet-level nominees, “Rehmann writes.
“…Of the 27 former clients and employers with potential conflicts of interest that Bernhardt disclosed on his ethics forms, lobbying disclosure data reveal that 20 have actively lobbied the Department of the Interior since the beginning of 2017.”
No Record of Whom He is Meeting With
Rehmann reports that in a recent New York Times story, Bernhardt claims to have received a “verbal” waiver from Department’s ethics officials, allowing him to work on weakening Endangered Species Act protections for a fish species in California—an action that benefits one of Bernhardt’s former clients, Wetlands Water District.
“Bernhardt also has not been forthcoming about his public schedule, claiming recently that he does not ‘personally maintain’ a calendar,” Rehmann writes.
“This suggests that there is no complete record of whom he is meeting with on official department business.
“Without any sort of paper trail outlining when he is requesting or receiving ethics waivers for himself, the American public is left in the dark.
“In short, Bernhardt’s many conflicts of interest, his secretive leadership style, and his apparent contempt for ethical norms make him unfit to serve as Secretary of the Interior,” Rehmann concludes.
Trump has nominated Bernhardt to formally assume the position of Interior Secretary.
Bernhardt said in a statement, “The plans adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensure the viability of local communities across the West.”