Week 121: David Bernhardt’s (Document) Dump on Congress

Plus, Big Oil (literally!) writes its own offshore drilling rules, Trump fast-tracks his border wall through more wilderness areas, and the Interior Department gets petty with its press releases.

May 17, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth

Trying to Hide Something, Bernhardt?

Last September, the Trump administration invited mining companies into the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, cutting short an environmental impact study looking into how much damage copper and nickel mines might do to the area. When Democrats took control of the House, they requested that the U.S. Department of the Interior turn over documents relating to that decision.

What did the agency send to Congress? Nearly 66,000 pages of documents, more than half of which were already public. About 19 percent of the documents were duplicates. Some of the pages contained extensive redactions, even though a complete and unredacted version of the very same document existed elsewhere in the files. Many of the pages were also complete gibberish. The single document Congress was actually looking for, the Interior’s briefing memo, was redacted in its entirety—just a big black box with a white border, with no explanation for the redaction.

In other words, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gathered up a bunch of garbage paper and dumped it on Congress, forcing government employees to spend days paging through nonsense only to find that the one thing they asked for wasn’t there.

Asked about his document dump on Wednesday, Bernhardt merely smirked and suggested that his department should “have a conversation on that and figure it out.”

Or—hear me out for just a second, Mr. Secretary—you could actually do your job properly and deliver your coequal branch of government a set of materials that actually responds to the request.

Also, while Bernhardt is jerking Congress around on one end of Capitol Hill, he’s moving forward on the contested mining leases at the same moment.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about certain Trump administration members being held in contempt of Congress. May we please add Bernhardt to that list?

Mission Demolished

The Bureau of Land Management hit a new symbolic low this week when it pointedly decided to cut the following sentence from the traditional boilerplate that appears on its press releases: “The agency’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The pettiness of the administration is boundless. Someone in the BLM actually decided to cut this sentence, apparently objecting to the heretofore unobjectionable notion that the government should steward our lands for future generations. Next week I suppose the Trump administration will be proposing big changes to the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.”

A Cut-and-Paste Job on Offshore Drilling Safety

The Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is in charge of setting rules for offshore drilling, a role that came under scrutiny after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Following years of stalling, the Obama administration in 2016 adopted many of the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel to prevent a similar tragedy. Earlier this month, the Trump administration moved to loosen those safeguards, proposing a series of changes and initiating a public comment period.

But the nonpartisan watchdog Project on Government Oversight reported this week that the Interior Department sneaked a last-minute change into offshore drilling rules that would adopt existing industry standards without any independent analysis, editing, or public review.

In its comments on the Interior Department proposal, the American Petroleum Institute recommended that the administration integrate the industry standard on the safe drilling margin, which is the required pressure within an oil well. The Interior took the recommendation—the Trump administration is nothing if not deferential to industry demands—and incorporated it, word for word, into the final rule.

This is highly unusual. When an agency makes material changes to a proposed rule in response to comments, it is required to put the rule back through the notice-and-comment process. After all, the new rule is different from the initial proposal, and the public deserves the right to comment on the rule in its entirety. But the administration never bothered to do that.

This procedural error makes the new rule vulnerable to a legal challenge, but this is more than a bureaucratic hiccup. Some safety experts believe that the industry standard adopted by Interior is unsafe and can leave offshore oil wells unstable and at increased risk of a blowout (which is, ahem, what happened in the 2010 Gulf disaster). It doesn’t help that the administration also weakened portions of the rule that mandated independent testing of blowout preventers.

Looks like another lawsuit is on the way for the Interior Department.

Bulldozing the Desert

When President Trump proposed to build his border wall—or whatever he’s calling it these days—through a butterfly sanctuary, Congress told him no. But apparently Congress forgot to mention a series of other sensitive wilderness areas that shouldn’t be trampled on in the name of Trump’s all-around ill-conceived campaign promise.

This week, the administration waived required environmental reviews to expedite construction of a barrier up to 30 feet high through parts of Arizona, including the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

There is no doubt the construction of the fence/wall/barrier, along with new roads and increased lighting, will harm these ecosystems. In neighboring Texas, wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge has already seen the destruction of several types of native trees—just in time for the nesting season of many of the refuge’s bird species. Organ Pipe National Monument is home to plants that live virtually nowhere else in the United States, including the desert caper and night-blooming cereus. Javelinas, Sonoran pronghorn, and mountain lions prowl the landscape.

And, now, so will construction crews, cranes, and bulldozers, all thanks to Trump.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

The Trump administration buries more climate change research, Ivanka rents from a mining magnate, and another ethics fail at the EPA.


Before a president auctions off U.S. coastlines to oil companies, he has to ask state governors, Congress, local businesses, and you. Here’s how Trump is ignoring that process—and how it’s endangering coastal communities.

onEarth Story

Eight years after the BP disaster in the Gulf, the administration aims to relax the rules designed to prevent catastrophic explosions and spills.

onEarth Story

Trump slices a butterfly sanctuary in two, the EPA celebrates its second-worst year on record, and the president goes oddly silent on climate when it’s warm outside.

onEarth Story

Trump’s already offensive wall will also endanger an already endangered species.

onEarth Story

The man who’s likely to replace Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary is a seasoned Washington insider—and (surprise!) a former lobbyist for Big Oil and Big Ag.


The Trump administration’s review of national monuments threatens America’s culture and natural beauty.

onEarth Story

Abandoned mines are polluting Western waterways.

Rockies Dispatch

Environmentalists, the recreation industry, and lovers of the state’s great outdoors push back against new mine developments threatening their waters.

Rockies Dispatch

Cobalt mining and other interests lay claim to Grand Staircase–Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, rankling local communities tied to these lands.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.