WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama’s nominee to steer the Interior Department, REI chief executive Sally Jewell, vowed Thursday to balance competing demands on public lands for conservation and resource exploitation. But several senators of both parties expressed wariness of Jewell’s involvement in conservation groups, suggesting that she might not adequately support fossil fuel development on federal acreage.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has focused on Jewell’s tenure on the board of National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group for the nation’s parks, as a possible barrier to her fairness.
Barrasso, during her confirmation hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, described the group as having sued the federal government, including the Interior Department, on “behalf of policies that put people in Wyoming and across America out of work” because of challenges the association has made to some fossil fuel and uranium development efforts.
Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III questioned Jewell about her previous support for cap-and-trade legislation, a measure he opposes because he represents West Virginia, a coal state that could be hit hard by placing a price on emissions of carbon dioxide.
And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee’s ranking minority member, threatened to place a hold on Jewell’s nomination because of the Interior Department’s decision to reject a proposal she favors to build a road through a wildlife refuge in her state to a local airport.
“King Cove will stand as a prime example of federal overreach and the harm it causes,” Murkowski said, referring to the road issue. “And the reality is, nearly all of us — especially in Western states — have our own King Cove. We are all aware of instances where misguided federal restrictions are making it harder for local people to live, be safe, and to prosper.”
But some Republicans on the panel, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., were impressed with Jewell’s business background, going so far to say that she seemed the kind of candidate a Republican president would appoint.
Although Jewell, 58, has been meeting privately with senators over the last few weeks, the hearing was the first chance many in industry and the environmental community had to hear Jewell’s views on managing public lands. For the most part, Jewell hewed to administration talking points about achieving balance among various demands on public lands and pursuing an “all of the above” energy policy. She also underscored the growing focus on climate change during a second Obama term.
“The president has made clear that climate change is an important issue for our nation, especially as we face more frequent and intense droughts, wildfires and floods,” Jewell said. “I commit to tapping into the vast scientific and land management resources at Interior — from USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) to the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Reclamation and beyond — to better understand and prepare for the challenges that our cities, coastlines, river basins and — ultimately — our economies face.”
Jewell is a true newcomer to Washington. Interior secretaries have traditionally been Western politicians, in part because most federal lands are in the West. But Jewell’s roots are in private industry and conservation. Born in the United Kingdom but raised in Washington state, Jewell worked as an engineer in the oil industry after college before going into banking and then moving to REI, which she helped build into a $2-billion-a-year company. At the same time, she has worked on land conservation efforts and served on the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association.
A vote by the committee on the Jewell nomination could come as early as next week, a committee staff member said.