The oil lobby has had ready access to top administration officials, both inside the Interior Department and out.
By Lance Willims
Center for Investigative Reporting / Reveal (3/22/19)
Gathered for a private meeting at a beachside Ritz–Carlton in Southern California, the oil executives were celebrating a colleague’s sudden rise. David Bernhardt, their former lawyer, had been appointed by President Donald Trump to the powerful No. 2 spot at the Department of the Interior.
Just five months into the Trump era, the energy developers who make up the Independent Petroleum Association of America, or IPAA, already had watched the new president order a sweeping overhaul of environmental regulations that were cutting into their bottom lines – rules concerning smog, hydraulic fracturing and endangered species protection.
Dan Naatz, the association’s political director, told the audience of about 100 executives that Bernhardt’s new role meant their priorities would be heard at the highest levels of the department.
“We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” Naatz said, according to an hourlong recording of the June 2017 event in Laguna Niguel provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The recording gives a rare look behind the curtain of an influential oil industry lobbying group that spends more than $1 million per year to push its agenda in Congress and federal regulatory agencies. The previous eight years had been dispiriting for the industry: As IPAA vice president Jeff Eshelman told the group, it had seemed as though the Obama administration and environmental groups had put together “their target list of everything that they wanted done to shut down the oil and gas industry.”
“We have unprecedented access”
But now, the oil executives were almost giddy at the prospect of high-level executive branch access of the sort they hadn’t enjoyed since Dick Cheney, a fellow oilman, was vice president.
“It’s really a new thing for us,” said Barry Russell, the association’s CEO, boasting of his meetings with the Environmental Protection Agency chief at the time, Scott Pruitt, and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “For example, next week, I’m invited to the White House to talk about tax code. Last week, we were talking to Secretary Pruitt, and in about two weeks, we have a meeting with Secretary Zinke. So we have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great.”
In that Ritz-Carlton conference room, Russell also spoke of his ties to Bernhardt, recalling the lawyer’s role as point man on an association legal team set up to challenge federal endangered species rules.
“Well, the guy that actually headed up that group is now the No. 2 at Interior,” he said, referring to Bernhardt. “So that’s worked out well.”
Now, Bernhardt is in line for a promotion: The former oil industry lobbyist has been nominated by Trump to be the interior secretary. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Thursday. Bernhardt has been running the department since early January, when Zinke resigned amid an ethics scandal. The post gives Bernhardt influence over regulations affecting energy production on millions of acres of public lands, deciding who gets to develop it, how much they pay and whether they are complying with the law.
Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said: “Acting Secretary David Bernhardt has had no communication or contact with either Barry Russell or Dan Naatz.”
The IPAA executives were not available to comment on this story, a spokeswoman said.
At the meeting, the association’s leaders distributed a private “regulatory update” memo that detailed environmental laws and rules it hoped to blunt or overturn. The group ultimately got its way on four of the five high-profile issues that topped its wish list.
Trump himself was a driving force behind deregulating the energy industry, ordering the government in 2017 to weed out federal rules “that unnecessarily encumber energy production.” In a 2017 order, Zinke called for his deputy secretary – Bernhardt – to make sure the department complied with Trump’s regulatory rollbacks. …