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Sen. Bill Nelson blasts Interior Department nominee over offshore drilling stance

Bill Nelson


Sen. Bill Nelson sharply criticized Donald Trump's nominee for the number two position at the Interior Department on Thursday, saying in a speech on the Senate floor that he plans to oppose David Bernhardt due to his noncommittal position on an oil drilling moratorium in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Trump and Interior Department secretary Ryan Zinke announced a review on drilling in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico in April, a sign that the administration wants to loosen drilling restrictions. 

"I am going to lift the restrictions on American energy, and allow this wealth to pour into our communities," Trump said in April.

Bernhardt told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during his confirmation hearing that he supports the Trump administration's review. His nomination passed out of committee by a vote of 14 to 9, with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Maine Independent Sen. Angus King voting with Republicans. 

"During his confirmation process, [Bernhardt] gave some very troubling answers to questions about the moratorium," Nelson said. "When it comes to the eastern Gulf, there is no good way to increase offshore production while balancing environmental concerns. … And, secondly, as I have explained time and time again, it makes no sense to drill in an area that is critically important to the United States military."  

In 2006, Nelson helped pass a ban on oil drilling 125 miles off of Florida's coast. That ban is set to expire in 2022 and a number of congressional Republicans and industry groups are in favor of ending the ban.

"The top brass in the Pentagon are asking that we extend this moratorium," Nelson said, adding that the moratorium allows for military training operations in the Gulf in addition to the environmental benefits. "So we should not put someone in charge at the Department of the Interior if he has an open objection to what is obviously needed for the national security and if he has such a demonstrated history of siding just with special interest, which would be a bad decision when it comes to the national security of this country." 

Nelson filed legislation earlier this year that would extend Florida's moratorium by five years.

The Senate will vote Monday on Bernhardt's nomination. Bernhardt is a longtime lobbyist on environmental issues in Washington who once sued the Interior Department. He also worked as legal counsel for the Interior Department under George W. Bush. 

"Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest," said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., in April.