In an interview with The New Mexican Tuesday, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt discussed a variety of topics that affect an agency that has huge influence throughout the West and in New Mexico.
Here are excerpts from questions and answers from the roughly 30-minute interview.
Question: What’s your view on oil and gas companies and the state working to limit methane emissions here in New Mexico, especially with the Trump (administration) rollback on methane pollution limits?
Bernhardt: “Well I think you would find if you looked at our rule, what our rule actually does is [it] says that we think to the extent that a state has certain methane requirements, we would expect that people would meet those requirements, and our rule specifically does that. We believe in cooperative federalism. I also believe that for most things, the state really is the primary air regulator. I mean, if you look around, usually that’s delegated authority from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], but Interior’s not a primary regulator.”
Question: You mentioned eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic work. Will moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado help with that?
Bernhardt: “We’ve been in a long period of reorganization. We’ve just begun a process to move and redeploy assets West for BLM … and I think it will lead to a much more improved structure. We have a big disconnect between some of our policy thinkers and our range managers, and we shouldn’t have that disconnect. To me, that’s a sign that we are not recruiting or we’re not building the right talent structure. We just went out for solicitation for a number of jobs in our new headquarters … and I think that the interest we’ve seen from people applying is off the charts.”
Question: How do you respond to criticism that you can’t fulfill Interior’s core mission of protecting the environment due to your history as an oil and gas lobbyist?
Bernhardt: “ … The reality is, whoever’s in this job is going to fulfill the president’s agenda. Now, what I bring to the table, honestly, is I’m a pretty sophisticated natural resource lawyer. I know these issues upside and down. I’ve spent more time at the Department of the Interior than anybody other than maybe one secretary in its entire history before I got the job. And more importantly, on ethics specifically, I have personally hired more ethics officials into the department than any administration cumulatively. I’ve put 40 new people in ethics because I believe it’s an important issue to ensure that we have good ethics advisers helping our people.”
Question: Asked about regulations the administration views as potentially hindering economic interests, Bernhardt pointed to red tape that makes the department less efficient. He gave the example of routing reports through Washington, D.C., offices instead of sending them directly to an official journal of the federal government containing proposed rules and other public information called the Federal Register.
Bernhardt: “Until the ’90s, state directors sent things directly to the Federal Register. In the late ’90s it changed, and for about over 20 years … on average it was taking 199 days for a two-page document to go from the state director to the Federal Register. I was getting these documents that, like, 35 and 40 people looked at. Didn’t seem to me that they were adding a lot of value. And when I asked what the purpose was, it was like, ‘to not be surprised.’
“We changed our process, didn’t change a single environmental standard. And in doing that, our time frame for processing these went from an average of 199 days down to 32. The other thing that happened is by doing that, the people who actually wrote the document were actually on the phone with the people that were asking the questions. And so you know what we got? Answers.”