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Interior nominee to focus on permit backlog, jobs

18 May 2017, 7.40 pm GMT

Interior nominee to focus on permit backlog, jobs

Washington, 18 May (Argus) — The US Interior Department under President Donald Trump will focus on reducing permitting backlogs and maintaining jobs rather than trying to mitigate the effects of climate change, deputy secretary nominee David Bernhardt said today in testimony before a US Senate committee.

"My task will be to take the science as we find it, put it in the paradigm of the administration's policy perspective, which is that we are not going to sacrifice jobs for this, and then look at the legal requirements," Bernhardt said after being questioned by Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) about his views on climate change.

The nominee told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that he personally believes that the human contribution to climate change is "very significant," but that Interior will maintain Trump's pro-fossil fuels jobs stance "to the extent that we have the discretion under the law."

Franken called this view "incredibly short-sighted," arguing that coal jobs "are not coming back and that is partly due to natural gas."

Bernhardt, who served as solicitor of the Interior Department under former president George W. Bush, said he wants to target a backlog in permit applications that he attributed to burdensome environmental impact studies that can require hundreds of millions of dollars of documentation and take years to complete. Interior is planning to "streamline" its systems and give more resources to field offices so that they can complete their work more quickly.

"We are a country that is suffering from paralysis of analysis," he said.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) praised Bernhardt's "integrity and ability," saying that he will strike the right balance between conservation and resource development. Committee chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she hoped to move through Bernhardt's nomination process quickly.

But ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said that the nominee's recent private sector work in support of fossil fuels companies creates "an inherent appearance of a conflict" of interest.

Bernhardt would not have been eligible to serve as deputy secretary under the lobbying ethics rules of former president Barack Obama, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) said.

Cantwell also questioned Bernhardt on his role as Interior solicitor during the Bush administration, when the deputy assistant secretary at the time — Julie MacDonald — was accused of pressuring scientists to withhold research findings that could block private sector development. Bernhardt said that he worked to implement new processes within the department to make sure such an incident could not occur again.

Now under the Trump administration, "the scientists at the Department of Interior are not under attack," Bernhardt said.

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