Week 141: Bernhardt Moves to Make a Big Dam Bigger—and His Old Clients Richer

Plus, the Trump administration dodges Senate hearings, and loses to environmentalists in two big court cases.

October 04, 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 (Bernhardt photo: DPA Picture-Alliance/Alamy)

Dam Shameless

Before he was the interior secretary, David Bernhardt was a lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, a state entity created for the benefit of some of the largest farms in California. Typically, administrations sternly warn their officials against giving the impression of favoritism toward any former lobbying clients. Either Bernhardt never received that message, or he’s gone rogue in the most flamboyant manner possible—by granting his old client an environmentally disastrous dam project that has been repeatedly rejected by the department he now heads.

This week, the New York Times reported on the Interior Department’s decision to “reconsider” a 2015 proposal to increase the height of northern California’s Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. The dam would then be able to hold 14 percent more of the Sacramento River’s water, something that would very much benefit the thirsty Big Ag interests of the Westlands Water District. Preparations to raise the 602-foot dam are underway.

Serious scientists agree that raising the Shasta Dam threatens a number of at-risk species, including the bald eagle. In addition, lower flows downstream and higher temperatures in the shallower waters would vastly reduce salmon populations, with the already endangered Chinook salmon among the hardest hit.

How did David Bernhardt get around this rock-solid scientific consensus? He ignored it. Bernhardt ordered a new environmental review of the dam proposal. In this new report, the Interior Department would simply not consider the effects on downstream salmon or other sensitive species.

The Trump administration seems to be pioneering a new approach to environmental impact analysis: Just pretend the most damaging consequences of a project don’t exist. It’s exactly the same approach we’ve seen with the potential health effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, the impact of Trump’s wall on biodiversity, and just about everything that has to do with climate change.

But back to Bernhardt. In his lobbying days, Bernhardt’s firm collected $1.3 million in fees from the Westlands Water District. Even in the field of big-money lobbying, that’s a lot of cash. Ethics rules urge executive branch officials to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. All Bernhardt had to do was to recuse himself from the dam issue. Even if the letter of the ethics rules didn’t require it, recusal would have given Bernhardt some cover when accused of doing a favor for a very generous past client. That he chose not to recuse suggests that either (1) Bernhardt couldn’t care less about the appearance of corruption, or (2) recusal would have prevented the proposal from going through, because he is probably the only Interior official shameless enough to ignore the enormous body of evidence that a higher dam would be an environmental danger. Or both. Probably both.

Meet the New Boss. Same As the Old Boss.

If one were to create in a laboratory the Trump-iest possible public official, you would probably end up with William Perry Pendley. Just take 500 milliliters of partisan rhetoric, 400 kilograms of obnoxious Twitter banter, and an aliquot part of anti-government hysteria, then titrate with pro-pollution lobbying, and—presto!—you have the man that Secretary Bernhardt has installed as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. For the second time.

Here’s the thing: The president is required to seek Senate approval for his ministers, and for good reason. Appointing the same person on an interim basis over and over again would enable the administration to dodge this important, democracy-reinforcing step. But when Pendley’s interim appointment was set to expire this past Monday, Bernhardt simply extended it. Why? Perhaps Trump hasn’t fallen in love with Pendley (and his Yosemite Sam facial hair) yet, or maybe the administration fears putting the combustible social media provocateur through the confirmation process. We should know soon.

But I guess we shouldn’t perseverate on Pendley’s permanently-interim status when there are so many other reasons to oppose his directorship, like his policy views. Pendley has argued that the founding fathers intended for all federal lands to be sold. Nominating him to lead the agency tasked with managing those lands, as President Trump is rumored to be planning, makes no sense. 

Thank you, Judges!

The Trump administration suffered a couple of delicious losses in federal court this week—one concerning public lands and the other about air pollution.

President Trump moved to substantially shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments early in his tenure. The move was essentially unprecedented—no president had ever successfully used an executive order to materially change the size of a monument designated by one of his predecessors. Just about everyone (including NRDC) sued, and the administration moved to dismiss those lawsuits, arguing that environmental advocacy groups lack standing to challenge the president’s anti-environmental decision to illegally shrink public lands. On Monday night, a federal judge rejected Trump’s argument. The cases will march forward, with the next hearing scheduled for this Monday.

On Tuesday, a separate panel of judges told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it must keep enforcing the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision, which limits the amount of gunk states are allowed to blow across their borders and into the lungs of their fellow Americans downwind. In a continuation of its general hostility to the Clean Air Act’s commonsense and neighborly provision, the EPA had decided that midwestern and southern states were doing a passable job of reducing ground-level ozone drifting westward. The court disagreed. By the way, Tuesday’s decision was the second scolding the EPA has received over its failure to protect states downwind of heavy polluters. I guess Andrew Wheeler will have to, ya know, finally do his job.

Stop David Bernhardt

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.

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