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Murkowski bolsters Interior Department deputy nominee

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski pledged to move President Donald Trump's nominee to be No. 2 at the Interior Department, David Bernhardt, through his Senate confirmation at an energy committee hearing Thursday.

Bernhardt caught some grief from Democratic members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, for his background lobbying for oil and gas companies.

But he pledged to Murkowski he would "restore the balance and the trust" between the department and Alaskans, eroded under the Obama administration, and help encourage more oil production in the state.

"It's no secret around here… that I didn't have a particularly close or productive relationship with the Department of Interior (during the Obama administration), which was unfortunate," Murkowski told Bernhardt at his confirmation hearing Thursday.

Bernhardt told Murkowski he loves Alaska, and touted visits to Katmai National Park and Denali National Park and Preserve and his experience hunting in the Yukon-Charley preserve.

The nominee to be deputy secretary of the Interior said he aims to "respect" the state and tribes' role in land management and focus on meaningful consultation with residents.

Bernhardt also promised Murkowski he would work through the department to refill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. He said he was "very surprised" to learn of the "significant decline" in the volume of oil running through the pipeline, and said he would "absolutely make it a priority" to help provide more access to oil on federal lands in the state of Alaska.

Bernhardt originally hails from Rifle, Colorado, but has worked in Washington, D.C., for many years.

Since leaving the Interior Department, where he was last working as solicitor — the chief lawyer — Bernhardt has worked for the law firm Brownstein, Hyatt and Farber. While there, his clients have included the state of Alaska, Halliburton Energy Services and other resource companies.

Ranking member of the committee Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Bernhardt's work since leaving the department, where he worked during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, "creates at least an inherent appearance of conflict," and said she had concerns about his nomination.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., submitted for the record a list of oil companies for which Bernhardt has done work, and noted Trump's repeated promises to "drain the swamp," despite weakening some conflict-of-interest requirements for political appointees.

"Are you aware that under the Obama administration's lobby rules, you would not have qualified for this appointment?" she asked. "Yes," Bernhardt replied.

The committee did not vote to advance Bernhardt's nomination — the process will come at a later, as yet unscheduled, hearing.

Correction: This story previously misidentified Sen. Maria Cantwell as a Republican. She is a Democrat. 

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