Secretary Bernhardt’s Shady Ethics Drive Trump Extinction Plan

In a move championed by oil, gas and other extractive industries, the Department of the Interior released its final regulations to severely weaken the Endangered Species Act, effectively putting a price on extinction. 

These changes, which fly in the face of overwhelming and historically bipartisan support for protecting wildlife, are a key example of how policy outcomes at the department are influenced by the conflicts of interest of its head: Secretary David Bernhardt. A former oil and gas lobbyist who sued the department over ESA implementation, Bernhardt has made attacking the ESA a centerpiece of his agenda.

One of the strongest tools our nation uses to protect vulnerable wildlife, the ESA has supported the survival of numerous species across the country — including the bald eagle, the gray whale, sea turtles and the grizzly bear. Since its enactment in 1973, the ESA has utilized scientific data and public input to protect our nation’s animals. Its purpose underscores the need to make sacrifices in order to ensure we do not lose important symbols of our natural heritage.

The ESA doesn’t just protect wildlife: It safeguards the habitats these animals call home. And that means water, including creeks, streams, wetlands and entire watersheds. These are vital resources for our communities by feeding drinking water sources, absorbing floodwaters, recharging ground water and more.

Gutting endangered species protections to make it easier to drill and mine will put the recovery of some of our most iconic wildlife at risk, but it also jeopardizes our water. And it’s a triple-whammy: The oil and gas extracted will fuel the climate crisis, which drives drought, increases flooding in some areas and could lead to more dangerous outbreaks of toxic algae across the nation.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has time and time again prioritized the profits of corporate polluters and special interests over crucial environmental protections, no matter how popular or successful they are. The latest attack on our environment includes allowing the federal government to toss aside science in favor of the economic impacts of ESA protections for imperiled species — an unprecedented move that will allow polluters’ profits to dictate protections. The regulations would also discourage federal agencies from considering the future impacts of climate change on species when making listing decisions.

We are at a time of unprecedented wildlife extinction with evidence that about 1 million animal and plant species could be within decades of extinction, more than ever before in human history. Due to the threats of expanded oil and gas development, rollbacks to habitat protections, and climate change, we have found ourselves in the midst of an extinction crisis. Yet, this administration has responded by proposing to further weaken this vital conservation tool and deny climate change. It is unconscionable that the administration would listen to extreme polluter interests rather than science or local voices.

Bernhardt has been the mastermind pushing these dramatic policies, having been no stranger to his former clients and friends in the industry. In less than three years, the Interior Department has taken over 20 policy actions that reduce wildlife protections and put species on a path to extinction, largely at the behest of the oil, coal and utility industries.

In one instance, Bernhardt reportedly directed staff to reduce protections for the delta smelt, a small fish located in the San Francisco Bay Delta on the brink of being endangered. This would be a major victory for a former client — Westlands Water District, a California water district serving large agricultural interests. It could allow for the water currently required to maintain delta smelt habitat to be diverted for corporate agricultural use.

The policies pushed by Bernhardt represent the swamp that the Trump administration has filled: political appointees who say they are working to uphold transparency and the values of their department but then turn around and boost special interest profits while ignoring their commitments to the American people. Bernhardt gamed the system to help the oil and gas industry while telling the public he would do the opposite.

Bernhardt, who reportedly had to carry a card listing all his conflicts of interest to remember them, was supposed to follow an ethics recusal barring him from interacting with his former clients. Unfortunately, those recusals expired on Aug. 3, and just days later, Bernhardt issued a secretary’s order restructuring Interior’s ethics program.

This unabashedly pro-polluter agenda has set its target on vulnerable wildlife so that industry can wreck habitat and put communities in jeopardy to increase profits without accountability. It does not have to be like this; Congress can and must reject Trump and Bernhardt’s poisonous agenda for wildlife and our water. 

Congress should also respond to the extinction crisis by strengthening protections such as the Endangered Species Act and ensure that these efforts are fully funded. If Americans want to stop this path to extinction and protect wildlife for future generations, our elected leaders must act now.


Bob Wendelgass is president and CEO of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund.

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