Former Interior Secretary Bernhardt addresses Garfield County energy forum |

Former Interior Secretary Bernhardt addresses Garfield County energy forum

America’s energy future is bright, even though the policies of the Biden administration are a bit of a cloud, former Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt said Thursday during the annual Energy and Environment Symposium in New Castle.

Bernhardt, a Rifle native who ascended from his work as a natural resources attorney in Denver to head of the Department of Interior under former President Donald Trump from 2019-2021, provided a critical analysis of that policy shift as keynote speaker at the event co-hosted by Garfield County and the Colorado Mesa University Unconventional Energy Center.

Working with two different administrations, first as a solicitor under President George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, and then as deputy chief and head of the department under Trump, Bernhardt said he came to understand the importance of a strong energy policy.

The Bush years were punctuated by an unwillingness to open the Florida coast to offshore drilling, even amid rising gas prices as his presidency came to a close.

Continued reliance on foreign oil came with the Obama years, and now again with President Biden, Bernhardt said.

Trump’s policy, by contrast, was rooted in regaining American energy independence and opening export markets through aggressive liquefied natural gas transactions.

“That was a very important component in his national security and foreign affairs strategy, and he liked it because it was very transactional,” Bernhardt said.

“Personally, I believe that having those additional tools as part of your strategy gives you a robust energy menu to work with,” he said. “Strong production has a huge effect on what Americans do worldwide, so to begin to go backwards from there makes no sense from a national security perspective, nor does it make sense to me from an economic perspective.

“It’s particularly challenging when you move to, ‘I’m not for American energy from fossil fuels, but I am for fossil fuels from other countries.’ That to me is an absolutely ridiculous position,” Bernhardt said in his criticism of the current administration.

That said, “My view of the future is great,” he said, “because at the end of the day, I fundamentally believe that the world is growing and people worldwide want to transition forward in their lives, and to do that they will need fossil fuels.”

Bernhardt provided an analysis of his work during the Trump transition and that of the Biden administration, both of which he said were effective in carrying out two very different policy objectives regarding public lands and natural resources.

“Biden the candidate was very clear in his policy vision … and did everything he needed to do to undo the Trump administration,” Bernhardt said.

The results were immediate, he observed.

In December of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management issued 864 applications for permits to drill (APDs). That number dropped to 164 APD approvals by December 2021, and in January of this year that number was down to 95.

“That is, as a pure analysis, pretty good work on implementing the president’s vision,” Bernhardt said.

Somewhat as a surprise given that vision, however, Biden agreed to support the Nordstream pipeline project from Russia to Germany, and to open other avenues for foreign imports. Biden would later withdraw support for Nordstream following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Oil and gas industry representatives during a well pad tour near Rifle on Wednesday.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

A major focus of the two-day Energy and Environment Symposium had to do with Colorado’s new, stricter regulations on oil and gas development under SB19-181.

Among the presenters were representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Public Health and Environment, who addressed the regulatory rulemaking that arose from that legislation, and last year’s Environmental Justice Act requirements.

Attendees also took a field tour Wednesday of a natural gas facility south of Rifle.

When it comes to reacting to those new regulations, whether it’s at the state or federal level, Bernhardt said it’s important that rural communities in energy-dependent areas be at the table.

“Somebody has to speak for those folks,” he said, relating his own experience growing up in Rifle during the oil shale boom and bust. “It’s not industry’s job to speak for those folks, and I assure you it’s not the bureaucracy’s job.”

Local governments are best equipped to make sure that voice is heard, Bernhardt said.

“Whatever your community view is, there’s someone at the table who has a different opinion,” he said. “You have to figure out how to be involved and how to participate in those processes.”

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or