From left, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Washington, walk to a closed Democratic Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 4, 2019. Credit: Carolyn Kaster | AP

WASHINGTON — He acknowledged climate change is real. He acknowledged that humans are contributing to it.

So why, Democratic lawmakers asked David Bernhardt, isn’t he doing more to address global warming?

Apparently, because Congress hasn’t told him to.

During his first testimony to Congress since becoming interior secretary, Bernhardt said it is up to lawmakers to direct bureaucrats like himself to address the causes and effects of warming globally.

The punt back to lawmakers is likely to frustrate House Democrats who are trying to hold the administration’s feet to the fire on climate change, because they know that any significant climate-related legislation to emerge from their chamber is likely to be rejected by either the president or the GOP-controlled Senate. At the same time, Democrats have only passed a single climate bill — one keeping the United States in the Paris climate accord — since taking the majority.

The exchange came when Democrats on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department’s budget pressed the Trump Cabinet official about why his department isn’t doing more to assess and mitigate the effects of warming temperatures, acidifying oceans and other effects of climate change over the vast lands and waters stewarded by the Interior Department.

“Isn’t this really your job?” asked Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

Bernhardt pushed back against the assertion, arguing he has no legal obligation to act in response to climate change. “My perspective on this is probably a little different than yours,” he said.

He noted that of more than 600 instances in the law mandating the interior secretary to take some action, none tell him that he “shall,” as is the legal parlance, manage federal lands to stop global warming.

“There’s no ‘shalls,’” Bernhardt said. “You guys come up with the ‘shalls.’”

Pingee responded by asking Bernhardt to identify any legal barriers to acting on climate change. “If there’s something legally stopping you, then we’re Congress,” she said. “We make the laws.”

It is a lawyerly defense Bernhardt has turned to before, including in an interview last year with The Washington Post. Yet law or no law, climate change remains a threat to the land the Interior Department is tasked with overseeing.

In the national park system alone, warming temperatures threaten to undermine the very nature of many popular tourist spots, such as by melting the glaciers of Montana’s Glacier National Park and imperilling the iconic Joshua trees of California’s Joshua Tree National Park.

And the department holds considerable sway of the United States’ overall contributions to climate change. A U.S. Geological Survey study published last year found that a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions came from the extracting and burning of fossil fuels from federal lands.

Yet in the more than two years Donald Trump has been president, the Interior Department has sought to undo much of the previous administration’s efforts to slow the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere undergirding that change.

Its action include rolling back rules designed to reduce the release of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, from oil and natural gas wells and lifting a moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands.

During the hearing, Bernhardt said his department does not plan on easing up on oil and gas drilling on public lands when asked by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, if a recent United Nations report on the possible extinction of up to 1 million species worldwide gives him pause.

Are we going to stop oil and gas development because of this report? The answer to that is no,” he said, again noting it is up to Congress to decide what the government does or does not allow on federal lands.

But when it came to the issue of drilling for oil and gas off the coasts of states outside the Gulf of Mexico, Bernhardt suggested he would give deference to local leaders.

“I’m not aware of a single lease that was ever developed over the opposition of a state,” he said.

The department has put on pause plans to expand offshore drilling across the U.S. continental shelf after a recent federal court ruled against the Trump administration’s effort to lift a current drilling ban in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. That decision came amid stiff opposition to offshore drilling from both Democratic and Republican politicians along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.