Business, environmental groups praise Interior nominee

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:37 AM

Jim Snyder

WASHINGTON — Sally Jewell, nominated to be Interior secretary, won praise from environmentalists as a conservation champion and from business groups that said she understands the importance of energy development on public land.

How well the head of a retail chain and former oil engineer manages the expectations of both camps will help President Barack Obama in balancing efforts to combat climate change with the push to extract more energy as a way to boost the economy, Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at The Third Way, said in an email.

Naming “a businesswoman with a background in both sides of the mission is a great step,” said Freed, whose group says it promotes “pragmatic solutions” to public policy debates.

Jewell, 56, started working at Mobil Oil Corp. in 1978, moved into commercial banking then joined retailer Recreation Equipment Inc. in 2000 as chief operating officer. She is an outdoors enthusiast who climbed the 14,400-foot Mount Rainier, highest point in Washington state, several times.

If confirmed by the Senate, she would succeed Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who sought to strengthen oil and gas regulations after BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill and to expand solar and wind projects on federal land. Energy groups such as the American Petroleum Institute are pushing to open more public land for drilling, citing added jobs and economic activity.

“We are encouraged that Ms. Jewell would bring a wealth of business experience to her new position overseeing the vast mineral and coal resources of the federal government,” said Hal Quinn, chief executive officer of the National Mining Association, a Washington-based group whose members include U.S. units of BHP Billiton Ltd. “We trust she will put her experience to good use in addressing long-standing impediments to more efficient development of these resources.”

Jack Gerard, chief executive officer of API, the Washington-based group whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. in Irving, Texas, and ConocoPhillips in Houston, said energy producers would look to Jewell’s business background and experience in the industry to “shape her approach to the game- changing prospects before us in energy development.”

Jewell’s nomination is a signal the Obama administration will protect U.S. public lands, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations said, citing her experience defending public lands from development as REI’s chief.

“Sally Jewell’s nomination comes at a critical moment, as we work to balance energy development and conservation to protect our wildest public lands,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, a Washington-based group that promotes conservation.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, a San Francisco-based environmental group, said Obama chose “a leader with a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans — recreation, adventure, and enjoyment.”

In thanking Salazar and nominating Jewell, Obama said the Interior Department had competing missions to protect “our national heritage” while putting the U.S. on a “path towards energy independence” through more development.

Jewell’s engineering background and experience in the banking and retail industries give her the skills needed to manage a department that oversees 500 million acres of public land, Obama said. The agency has 70,000 employees.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” Obama said. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress.”

Jewell would oversee development of the first-ever federal rules for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. The drilling process has unlocked stores of oil and gas trapped in shale rock formations, and industry representatives have resisted Interior’s push for greater oversight.

Environmental groups say the process, known as fracking, poses risks for water and air pollution and are seeking tighter regulation of the practice.

Most of the rise in U.S. oil and gas production has come on private lands. Industry groups want more access to lands managed by the U.S.

Some Republicans said they were concerned with the choice.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s public lands subcommittee, said he had reservations about Jewell because REI has “intimately supported several special-interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas.”

Bishop was referring to groups including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has worked to block oil and gas development in Utah, said Melissa Subbotin, his spokeswoman.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that she looked forward to learning why Jewell was a “suitable candidate” for taking over an agency that oversees everything from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to logging in Oregon.

Fortune Magazine has placed Kent, Washington-based REI on its list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past 16 years, ranking it No. 17 for this year. REI had sales of more than $1.8 billion in 2011 from more than 120 retail stores in the U.S., according to its website. It was founded in 1938.

REI says it was one of the first companies to offer health benefits to same-sex couples. Jewell’s 2011 compensation, including $754,307 in base pay, was $2 million, down from $2.28 million a year earlier, according to a statement on the Kent, Washington-based company’s website. Cabinet secretaries are paid about $200,000 this year.

Outside REI, Jewell is vice chairman of the National Parks Conservation Association, a board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and chairwoman of the Initiative for Global Development.

Thomas Kiernan, president of the national parks group, said in an interview that Jewell was a “thoughtful leader” who could work with both Democrats and Republicans.

She was a key contributor to setting up and implementing Obama’s efforts to promote conservation and recreation. In 2011, she introduced the president at the White House conference on “America’s Great Outdoor Initiative.”

At the time, the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry was the source of 6.5 million jobs.

Jewell has received community service awards including the 2009 Rachel Carson Award for Environmental Conservation from the Audubon Society and the 2008 Nonprofit Director of the Year award from the National Association of Corporate Directors.

_ With assistance from Margaret Talev and Roger Runningen in Washington.

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