Group Ties Interior Nominee/Westlands Lobbyist to Arctic Refuge Scientific Fraud

Group Ties Interior Nominee/Westlands Lobbyist to Arctic Refuge Scientific Fraud
On May 20, 2017, in Sacramento, people marched against the oil industry. Photo by Richard D. Iyall, Cowlitz

By Dan Bacher

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Daily Kos and is republished under its terms and conditions.

It looks as if Westlands Water District lobbyist David Bernhardt, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the deputy secretary of Interior, has not only promoted the evisceration of environmental laws and policies protecting Sacramento River and Klamath-Trinity River salmon but also has been involved in “scientific fraud” on the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, according to a prominent whistleblower group.

Bernhardt will serve under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the Department of Interior’s No. 2 spot if his nomination is confirmed by Congress.

“Bernhardt’s extensive experience serving under [former] Secretary [Gale] Norton and his legal career is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy,” said Secretary Zinke in a statement.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) disagrees with Zinke’s rosy assessment of Bernhardt’s “extensive experience” serving as a key aide to Secretary Norton under the George W. Bush administration. In fact, documents released by PEER on May 11 reveal that Bernhardt “abetted the doctoring of scientific findings about the impacts of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).”

The group said Norton’s office “substantially rewrote” official biological assessments to “falsely downplay” the effects of drilling before she transmitted them to Congress.

“Back in May 2001, Sen. Frank Murkowski, then chair of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, asked Norton for Interior’s official evaluation of the impacts of oil drilling on the Porcupine caribou herd in ANWR,” PEER stated. “Norton tasked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) with developing answers. The resulting FWS findings were then rewritten in Norton’s office when Bernhardt, one of the few political staff in her office, served as counselor to the secretary and director of Congressional Affairs.”

PEER said the changes made by Norton’s staff were extensive and “all skewed one way”—in the favor of the oil industry—by changing numbers, ignoring key data and spinning the absence of data. Examples of these rewritten FWS findings include the following:

  • Changing numbers: While FWS noted “there have been PCH [porcupine caribou herd] calving concentrations withinthe 1002 Area in 27 of 30 years,” Interior changed that to say, “Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area in 11 of the last 18 years.” [emphases added by Bacher]
  • Ignoring key data: FWS reported that calving reproductive “pauses” (years that females do not produce a calf) are higher in developed areas in Prudhoe Bay than in undisturbed areas. Interior left these data out and instead stated that “parturition and recruitment data do not support the hypothesis that oil fields adversely affect caribou productivity.”
  • Spinning absence of data: Norton stated that “there is no evidence that the seismic exploration activities or the drilling of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation exploratory well…have had any significant negative impact on the porcupine caribou herd,” but she omitted the FWS disclaimer that “no studies were conducted to determine the effects of the above activities on the PCH.”

“It appears Mr. Bernhardt shares an unfortunate affinity for alternative facts,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Bernhardt was a point person on both Arctic and petroleum issues when he was at Interior. “The Senate needs to thoroughly investigate his role in this blatant political manipulation of science before considering his nomination.”

In letters Bernhardt sent to senators to contain fallout from PEER’s revelation of these falsifications, he sought to minimize the discrepancies. He wrote, “We made a mistake in the letter” as if there was only one alteration, according to PEER. He later wrote that the FWS assessment had been “edited for responsiveness.”

“Interior is largely a science-based agency, necessitating a deputy secretary dedicated to scientific integrity over political spin,” said Ruch. “It is beyond ironic that Mr. Bernhardt resurfaces at Interior just as the status of safeguards for the Arctic Refuge is revisited.”

Ruch is asking the Senate to hold up confirmation proceedings until Bernhardt’s exact role in Norton’s manipulation of science on behalf of the petroleum industry can be determined.

Fishing and environmental groups have strongly opposed Bernhardt’s appointment. For example, John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), an organization representing sport and commercial salmon fishermen and women and related businesses along California’s coast and rivers, issued a statement strongly opposing Bernhardt’s nomination before Trump nominated the Westlands lobbyist on April 28.

Bernhardt has for many years served as a lobbyist and lawyer for the Westlands Water District, the largest federal water contractor in the nation and a strong advocate of the construction of the Delta Tunnels and the weakening of environmental laws protecting Sacramento River salmon, Central Valley steelhead and other imperiled fish populations.

“Mr. Bernhardt and Westlands have spent the past decade attacking salmon protections and, by extension, the tens of thousands of California fishing jobs tied to salmon,” said McManus. “It strains credibility to suggest that Mr. Bernhardt, were he to be appointed, would refrain from occupying himself with key departmental decisions that he has spent the last decade working to influence. In fact, those seeking his appointment are almost certainly counting on him to weigh in on their behalf.”

McManus emphasized, “Fishermen saw a pattern during the George W. Bush administration, including suppressing science and damaging salmon runs. We should learn from that history, not repeat it.”

Financial disclosure forms filed with the Independent Office of Government Ethics on March 6, more than a month before President Trump nominated him for the Interior post, reveal that Bernhardt received at least $80,000 last year working for energy and agribusiness corporations, reported E&E news.

According to the disclosure report, clients who paid Bernhardt at least $5,000 for his legal services in 2016 include Targa Resources Co. LLC, Noble Energy Co. LLC, NRG Energy Inc., Sempra Energy, Lafarge North America–Western Region, Safari Club International Foundation, Active Network LLC, Statoil Gulf Services LLC, Cobalt International Energy, Rosemont Copper Co., Independent Petroleum Association of America, Taylor Energy Co. LLC, Garrison Diversion Irrigation District, the Forest County Potawatomi Community and Westlands Water District.

Bernhardt briefly led Trump’s Department of Interior transition team after the November election until he was replaced by Doug Domenech, a Big Oil think tank director, on Nov. 26, 2016. For more information, visit


Dan Bacher is known as “Dangerous (don’t give a fish a chance) Dan” to the fish and out-of-line government agencies, Dan, like all of us, fishes and writes about it. Dan does the tough research and interviews it takes to write the hard-hitting editorials and action alerts you read on the pages of Daily Kos. His years of experience dealing with fishery issues provide the impetus required to get anglers involved in political action. As editor for the Fish Sniffer Print Edition, Dan oversees production of the paper while making sure distinct timely content arrives to the Fish Sniffer Online.


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