Skip to main content

The Big Oil Allies and Beltway Insiders Leading Trump’s Department of the Interior — and How to…

Prepare for four years of non-stop assault on public lands and wildlife.

By Jimmy Tobias


A dam spans the Columbia River near Umatilla, Oregon.. (Photo: Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

If Washington, D.C., is a swamp, as Donald Trump likes to say, then Doug Domenech and David Bernhardt are some of the swamp’s most-seasoned serpents.

Consummate Republican operatives with close ties to Big Oil and other extractive industries, both Domenech and Bernhardt are leading players in the Trump team’s Department of the Interior transition. They’re the guys helping the president-elect staff a bureaucracy that manages 500 million acres of federal land, implements the Endangered Species Act, runs the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and controls key oil and gas leasing programs, among other duties. And their ascension is an ugly omen for this country’s public lands and wildlife.

Bernhardt, for his part, has a long history as a right-wing influence peddler. Before sidling up to Trump, he spent eight years as a lawyer and lobbyist at the powerhouse firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. During his time there, according to federal disclosure forms, Bernhardt represented Samson Resources, an oil and gas developer in the American West. He lobbied on behalf of Rosemont Copper, a proposed open pit mine on national forest land in Arizona. And he represented wind developers, Vail Resorts, and California’s Westlands Water District, which is a determined foe of the Endangered Species Act.

In the George W. Bush era, Bernhardt was a high-level official in the Interior, where he had a mixed record. On one hand, he presided over the federal protection of the polar bear, flawed though it was. And on the other, he helped craft rules that exempted carbon emissions from regulatory authority.

Bernhardt was brought in first to lead Trump’s Interior transition. Recently, though, as the incoming administration tried to distance itself from lobbyists, it was announced that Domenech had taken over. It is unclear what role, if any, Bernhardt still has. The Trump team did not provide comment.

Like Bernhardt, Domenech served in the Bush administration. Like Bernhardt, he was part of an Interior leadership team that was cozy with fossil fuel interests and plagued by ethics scandals. Domenech was even tangentially involved in the Jack Abramoff corruption affair, as the Denver Post has reported. More recently, he became the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Fueling Freedom” project, which seeks to explain “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”


Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff leaves court after being released on bail on August 12th, 2005m in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

“Elections have consequences,” Domenech wrote in a November 17th blog post for the organization, “and, in this case, Americans just rejected the ‘keep it in the ground’ extremism espoused by those whose only operating focus is their view that CO2 is a pollutant and climate change is real.”

Needless to say, the empowerment of people like Domenech and Bernhardt, combined with Trump’s list of candidates for the Secretary of the Interior slot, has made the enemies of conservation downright giddy. The Western Energy Alliance, a trade group that represents public lands oil and gas developers, has described itself as “overjoyed.” The National Mining Association, meanwhile, called Trump’s election “a new beginning.” As Interior falls into the hands of industry advocates and right-wing ideologues, those who care about public lands and wildlife should prepare to fight on at least four fronts.

The Corrosion of Conservation Law

For years, GOP hardliners have sought to undermine the Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, among other laws. The White House or the Senate has blocked these efforts in the past, but now the safeguards are largely gone. Watch as legislators like Rob Bishop in the House of Representatives attempt to remove federal protections for specific species, such as the greater sage grouse. Watch as lawmakers try to revoke the executive branch’s ability to name new national monuments. And watch for bureaucratic tampering — the type of Endangered Species Act sabotage that occurred in Bush’s Interior, for example, will likely come into vogue once more.

Fossil Fuels on Federal Land

Trump is a loyal ally of Big Oil, and the industry knows it. “We anticipate good policies moving forward such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, liquefied natural gas exports and energy projects on non-park, non-wilderness federal lands,” the Western Energy Alliance announced in a post-election press release. Trump will undoubtedly do his best to make those “good policies” a reality.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are already preparing for renewed attempts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. And, given the disturbing alliance of white nationalists and fossil fuel interests taking shape within the Trump administration, we can expect to see increased crackdowns on frontline communities, especially communities of color, that are resisting extreme extraction and its assorted effects. For a vision of the future, look no further than the North Dakota political establishment’s authoritarian response to the non-violent #NoDAPL movement.

A Revitalized Land Transfer Campaign

The land transfer scheme wants to put hundreds of millions of publicly owned acres into the hands of GOP-controlled state governments. Backed by fossil fuel interests and libertarian politicians, it seeks to rob the American people of their rightful stake in most federal lands. And now, as Trump rises to power, it can expect to have sympathizers, if not full-fledged supporters, at the highest level of government.

One of the country’s leading land transfer groups, the American Lands Council, hailed Trump’s triumph in a recent email to supporters, noting that Republican victories this year “are especially relevant to us because the Republican National Committee adopted Transfer of Public Lands … into the national platform at their 2016 summer convention.” Whether through litigation or legislation, it’s likely that the GOP will now try to turn that platform into law. In order to block land transfer, conservationists should be ready to put unstinting pressure on senators who hail from states where public lands are popular, like Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.

Militarization of Public Lands Along the Nation’s Borders

Trump made “border security” a centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric. Of course, due to drone surveillance, walls, highway checkpoints, and the like, the United States-Mexico border has already been “secured” beyond recognition. And the Canadian border is inching toward the same fate. But no matter — the call is for bigger walls, more surveillance, and a larger law enforcement presence. Lucky for anti-conservationists in Congress, such policies are a ready-made way to roll back environmental protections in the name of national security. Republicans that sit on the House Committee on Natural Resources, for example, have proposed violating the Wilderness Act in order to set up surveillance towers and use off-road vehicles on protected public lands in Arizona. In the Trump administration, that proposal and others like it will have a champion.

Land and wildlife advocates suddenly find themselves in a defensive stance, it’s true, but the upside is this: The next four years will bring new collaboration and creative coalition building. Border militarization, for instance, should unite conservationists, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and tribes like the Tohono O’odham Nation in a powerful oppositional alliance. Efforts to rollback protections for the greater sage grouse and other dwindling species in oil and gas country should spark closer coordination between the anti-extinction movement and climate campaigners. If Congress attempts to transfer federal lands to state ownership, then hikers, bikers, campers, climbers, hunters, anglers, and outdoor retailers, among others, should be ready to put aside their many differences and march on Washington.

Unity and vigilance are the way forward and, fortunately, this country’s public lands and abundant wildlife command the loyalty and respect of many millions. Our lands and our wildlife embody public wealth, public beauty, and public good. They are not the private piggy bank of oil developers and mining firms. And they are not the property of state governments. They belong to all Americans, regardless of race, class, age, or ideology. And, whether in the courts, on the streets or around the dinner table, we must defend them.

On Twitter, Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico put it well: “Any [administration] that tries to reverse 100-year history of #PublicLands that belong to every American, is going to have to do it over my dead body.” Indeed.