WASHINGTON: A former energy lobbyist who is President Donald Trump`s new pick to lead the Interior Department told a key Senate panel on Thursday he would take precautions to prevent conflicts of interest in decisions involving former clients.
The Interior Department, which oversees more than one-fifth of the U.S. land surface from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, has been central to Trump`s policy of boosting domestic crude oil, natural gas and coal production.
David Bernhardt, a 49-year-old lawyer, has been acting secretary at the department since December when his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, resigned under a cloud of ethics investigations.
Like Zinke, Bernhardt is widely seen as a proponent of expanding energy and mining leasing on public acreage.
"If I am confirmed, I will approach all issues with an open mind and a solemn sense of duty to serve the American people," Bernhardt said in his opening statement.
He said he has "implemented an incredibly robust screening process" to guard against conflicts of interest.
A Colorado native, Bernhardt held a series of positions at the Interior Department under Republican former President George W. Bush from 2001 to early 2009, including as solicitor.
Bernhardt, a lawyer, went to work for Denver firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and worked as a lobbyist representing Noble Energy Inc, Rosemont Copper Co, Sempra Energy, and California`s Westlands Water District, among other clients.
Critics say Bernhardt`s work as a lobbyist could present conflicts of interest unless he recuses himself from certain issues because he represented companies that would benefit from decisions to open more lands to development.
"I make decisions based on exactly the same standards on every single thing that comes to my desk," Bernhardt said, when asked about a New York Times report this month that he helped block the release of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on the risks that pesticides pose to endangered species.
Offshore drilling is also likely to take center stage during a hearing of the Senate`s energy and natural resources committee.
A group of 17 Democratic senators sent a letter to Bernhardt earlier this month calling on him to release the details of the Interior Department`s new five-year offshore drilling plan due in the coming weeks. It is widely expected to expand drilling into new areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans over the objections of coastal U.S. states.
If approved by the panel, Bernhardt`s nomination will advance to the Republican-controlled Senate where he is widely expected to get the nod.