Interior Nominee Tied to Arctic Refuge Scientific Fraud

WASHINGTON, DC, May 11, 2017 – David Bernhardt, Trump’s nominee for Interior’s Deputy Secretary, abetted the doctoring of scientific findings about effects of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in his first stint at Interior, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Bernhardt was the key aide to then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton when her office substantially rewrote official biological assessments to falsely downplay impacts of drilling before she transmitted them to Congress. 

Back in May 2001, Senator Frank Murkowski, then Chair of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, asked Norton for Interior’s official evaluation of the impacts of oil drilling on the Porcupine caribou herd in ANWR. Norton tasked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) with developing answers. The resulting FWS findings were then rewritten in Norton’s office when Bernhardt, one of the few political staff in her office, served as Counselor to the Secretary and Director of Congressional Affairs.

The extensive changes made by Norton’s shop were extensive and all skewed one way by:

  • Changing Numbers.  While FWS noted “there have been PCH [Porcupine caribou herd] calving concentrations within the 1002 Area in 27 of 30 years,” Interior changed that to say “Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area in 11 of the last 18 years.” [emphases added]
  • Ignoring Key Data.   FWS reported that calving reproductive “pauses” (years that females do not produce a calf) is higher in developed areas in Prudhoe Bay than in undisturbed areas.  Interior left these data out and instead stated that “Parturition and recruitment data do not support the hypothesis that oil fields adversely affect caribou productivity.”
  • Spinning Absence of Data.  Norton stated that “There is no evidence that the seismic exploration activities or the drilling of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation exploratory well…have had any significant negative impact on the Porcupine caribou herd,” but she omitted the FWS disclaimer that “no studies were conducted to determine the effects of the above activities on the PCH.”

“It appears Mr. Bernhardt shares an unfortunate affinity for alternative facts,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Bernhardt was a point person on both Arctic and petroleum issues when he was at Interior. “The Senate needs to thoroughly investigate his role in this blatant political manipulation of science before considering his nomination.”

In letters Bernhardt sent to Senators to contain fallout from PEER’s revelation of these falsifications, he sought to minimize the discrepancies, writing “we made a mistake in the letter” as if there was only one alteration. He later wrote that the FWS assessment had been “edited for responsiveness.”

“Interior is largely a science-based agency, necessitating a Deputy Secretary dedicated to scientific integrity over political spin,” added Ruch, who is asking the Senate to hold up confirmation proceedings until Bernhardt’s exact role can be determined.  “It is beyond ironic that Mr. Bernhardt resurfaces at Interior just as the status of safeguards for the Arctic Refuge is revisited.”

Read PEER’s letter to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee 

View the changes Interior made to Arctic assessment

Look at Bernhardt’s damage control letters to Senators

See the letter FWS transmitted to Norton

Compare how it emerged from Norton