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Saturday 9 February 2019

Department of Drilling

What? The new kid in Donald Trump’s cabinet is quiet, punctilious, and very powerful

Why? He could change the American landscape for ever.

The past week has been an object lesson in the importance of distinguishing between what President Trump says and what he does. He said, in his State of the Union address, that Americans need come together, in Congress and the country. What he did the day before will have made coming together that much harder.

Trump’s bold move didn’t look bold at all. He nominated David Bernhardt as Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt is a scrupulous and highly effective administrator. He’s also a former oil lobbyist who firmly believes the job of the enormous department that he already leads on an interim basis is to exploit the American homeland for its people rather than preserve it for posterity.

Many of his colleagues share this view. His brief includes the National Parks Service but also the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM’s website opens with a picture of muscle cars at play on the sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

For the past two years, as deputy secretary, Bernhardt has been the quiet man behind the gawdy spectacle of Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first choice for this powerful but usually below-the-radar job. Zinke was bundled out of office last month after embarrassing the administration with his use of government planes for private trips.

Insiders say Bernhardt has in fact been running the department all along. He’s auctioned off oil and gas drilling rights on nearly 20 million acres of public lands; eased restrictions on mining and drilling for millions more; and laid the groundwork for an offshore oil bonanza off every coastal state. All in all he’s given meaning to one of Trump’s favourite slogans, which doubles as a policy goal: American energy dominance.

Caribou can sniff prospectors

His confirmation in the post is virtually certain since Republicans still control the Senate. His agenda for the next two years is clear: more of the same, and if that means infuriating the Left so much the better.

If? Make that when. Behind the scenes, Bernhardt has already masterminded the reopening of large tracts of southern Utah to ranchers after President Obama used executive orders to protect them. He has loosened wildlife protections under the Endangered Species Act, making life harder for the sage grouse in particular, a mascot of the intra-mountain West. Now he and Trump are expected to turn their attention to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – another 20 million acres, for now still pristine wilderness.

The ANWR is a totem of the American environmental movement. Four times the size of Wales, it has no roads and no indigenous humans bar a few direct ancestors of those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge after the last ice age. Presidents Eisenhower and Carter signed laws to protect its nature for nature’s sake. Trump wants companies to be allowed to drill there, not because the US needs the oil (output is booming across the lower 48 states) but to fire up his base for 2020.

Sage Grouse, mascot under threat

Under Obama, the front line in America’s eco-wars was the Keystone pipeline plan to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Since this crossed an international border it was a matter for the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The ANWR is the Keystone of Trump’s next two years, and every square inch of it is Bernhardt’s responsibility. He is a lawyer by training and assiduous in avoiding overt conflicts of interest. A laminated list of 26 energy firms he used to represent hangs from his belt. But those firms do not include the oil giants poised to move into the ANWR as soon as Washington lets them. Its caribou can already smell prospectors on the wind.

Sometimes the rhetoric and reality of Trumpism diverge in a good way. His bark has been worse than his bite on tariffs, for instance, and arguably in his goading of Nato. Not this time. This time there has been scarcely any rhetoric. Just one congratulatory tweet, and an appointment that could change America for ever.