Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but faced more questions about his response to climate change and a slew of ethical concerns than about his budget.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) centered his questions entirely on Bernhardt’s “sleep” comment, flanked by a staffer holding photos of climate-related disasters in Puerto Rico, California and Texas, listing off the number of people who died in the disasters and how much damage they caused.
“Do you lose sleep over it?” Merkley asked after each example.
“I think it’s an issue that need to be addressed, but I don’t lose sleep over it,” Bernhardt responded.
“The policies you’re promoting are doing enormous damage to our planet,” Merkley said, calling the agency’s policies “an immoral thing to do to the generations to come.”
Merkley told the secretary he should “maybe lose some sleep and maybe decide to be part of the solution” on climate change.
Bernhardt later said: “We completely respect that the climate is changing, and we need to study and address it,” and listed divisions of the department he said are making such efforts.
Some of Bernhardt’s comments echoed his past assertion that the legislative branch needs to take a greater role in directing the department to respond to climate change.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) agreed, saying it shouldn’t fall to one secretary to make such determinations, and criticized her colleagues for “rhetorical” questioning of the secretary.
“I think the secretary, in response to rhetorical questions, is just kind of pointing out the obvious that the authority rests with Congress,” she said.
But Democrats have criticized Bernhardt for not viewing climate change as part of his job, with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) arguing that Bernhardt is ignoring the intent of legislation.
“Blaming Congress is a dodge,” Udall said.
He also raised conflict of interest concerns related to Bernhardt’s past as a lobbyist.
“We could spend this entire hearing probing your various conflicts of interest,” Udall said. “It’s clear you’re making decisions that benefit former clients instead of the American people.”
Senators on both sides of the aisle also pressed Bernhardt to limit offshore drilling and clarify the department’s position on the issue after pausing the development of its five-year offshore drilling plan.
In responding to a question from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) Bernhardt said litigation was the driver behind halting the plan’s development.
“I’ve paused it until I figure out a pathway,” Bernhardt said, nodding to an Alaska case that would bar drilling in the Arctic.
“I’m glad you’ve paused it and hope you permanently pause it,” Van Hollen replied.
The Trump administration’s $30 billion budget request for the Interior Department would be a cut from last year’s budget, though Bernhardt noted it is larger than what the department requested last year.
Republicans praised aspects of the budget that would help deal with the maintenance backlog in national parks and funds included to protect the Everglades.