SOUTH BERWICK — Conservation and outdoor recreation are important to our state. The health of our lands and waters is critical to our work, our play, our quality of life. And our congressional representatives get it. They recently voted to approve a bipartisan bill to protect 2 million acres of public lands. They voted to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And both of our senators, Angus King and Susan Collins, voted against the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the Interior Department, from the moment Ryan Zinke rode into town on horseback to his new job as interior secretary in 2017, he was a disaster for America’s public lands and waters. Now, his likely replacement, David Bernhardt, will be even worse.

David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest. Since he’s been at Interior, the agency has done countless favors for his former clients like giving Eni Petroleum permission to drill the first exploration wells in Arctic waters in two years. He has weakened offshore drilling safety requirements put in place after the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a move applauded by the offshore industry. And, while federal employees were furloughed and missing paychecks, he brought them back into work for the purpose of churning out approvals for 71 offshore oil drilling permits. Fifty-three of those went to companies on the board of directors of the National Ocean Industries Association, the major offshore drilling trade association and a former Bernhardt client.

Here in Maine there is strong bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling, like there is along most of the Atlantic Seaboard. Yet at a recent International Association of Geophysical Contractors conference, one of Bernhardt’s subordinates announced that large portions of the Atlantic will, in fact, be available for oil and gas leasing. Not surprisingly, many former Bernhardt clients, including the National Ocean Industries Association, have been active in pushing for offshore Atlantic oil drilling.

Perhaps nowhere are Bernhardt’s conflicts more evident than in Alaska, where he has sought to rush leasing and exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by setting arbitrary and reckless deadlines for reviews. In his previous stint at Interior, under George W. Bush, Bernhardt notoriously is alleged to have altered or omitted data from reports provided by his own scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to distort Interior Department conclusions about the Arctic Refuge in a bid to advance drilling there, downplaying the impacts on caribou.

And now there’s evidence that under his direction, the Bureau of Land Management has hidden valid scientific concerns about land and wildlife impacts – 18 memos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identifying the types of information needed for “planning, developing, and managing an oil and gas program in the 1002 area” of the Arctic Refuge were withheld from the bureau’s current leasing process and environmental review.

For a man like David Bernhardt, malfeasance like this is par for the course. When the nominee selected to steward America’s public lands and waters has a documented history of putting the interests of his oil industry friends ahead of American citizens and lying repeatedly while doing so — it might be time to reconsider that selection.

The Arctic Refuge supports some of the most diverse and stunning populations of wildlife in the Arctic, and more than two-thirds of the country is opposed to oil drilling there. Its coastal plain is an area critical to the Porcupine caribou herd, which undertakes the longest land migration of any animal in the world to calve there each summer. As warming affects the thickness and spread of sea ice in the Arctic, mother polar bears are more and more using the coastal plain to den during the winter when they give birth to cubs. It is, in fact, the most important land denning habitat for U.S. polar bears in the entire American Arctic.

The phrase “fox in the henhouse” has been tossed around quite a bit during the Trump administration. But in this case, being cast as the fox doesn’t do Bernhardt justice. His allegiance to the fossil fuel industry is immense, his commitment to conservation nonexistent. Sens. King and Collins should both oppose his nomination to steward our public lands and waters.

 


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