Obama picks REI chief Sally Jewell to lead Interior

02/06/2013 5:26 PM

02/07/2013 1:50 PM

Sally Jewell, a conservation advocate who’s the head of the outdoor gear and clothing retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., is President Barack Obama’s choice to be the secretary of the interior.

Jewell, if she’s confirmed by the Senate, would oversee 500 million acres of public land and have vast responsibilities that include oil and gas development, endangered species, national parks and Native American affairs. She’ll be thrown into emotional battles over offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans and the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil, known as fracking.

The job of interior secretary usually goes to a public official from the West, someone with government experience and a record of making decisions on public lands and environmental issues. Jewell lives in the West, with a home in the Seattle area near REI’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. But she comes from the world of business, and some members of the Senate said they needed to learn more about her policy views before deciding whether to back her confirmation.

Jewell is an outdoor enthusiast with a conservation background. But she has a mechanical engineering degree and worked for Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil, in Oklahoma and Colorado for three years after college. She also spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry before she became an executive for REI.

Environmental groups are enthusiastic about the choice. Jewell is vice chairwoman of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, and she won the 2009 Rachel Carson award from the Audubon Society for work furthering environmental efforts. Jewell also is a board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which works to conserve green and open spaces in Washington state.

The Sierra Club said she’d shown a commitment to preserving public lands for recreation, adventure and enjoyment.

“We look forward to working closely with her to preserve more of those benefits and more of our natural heritage by designating new national monuments, protecting America’s Arctic from risky drilling, and keeping dirty and dangerous fracking out of our public lands,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

Drilling advocates in Congress said they wanted to know more. Jewell will face intensive questioning during her confirmation hearings from Republicans who argue that Obama hasn’t done enough for drilling on federal lands.

“I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department,” said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The oil industry offered a cautious response to the nomination.

“We look forward to learning how Sally Jewell’s business background and experience in the oil and natural gas industry will shape her approach to the game-changing prospects before us in energy development,” said Jack Gerard, the chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main trade group.

Conservation advocates hope that Jewell will do more for their cause than her predecessor as interior secretary, Ken Salazar, who’s stepping down after four years in the job under Obama. Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, said this week that the Obama administration had leased far too much land for oil and gas development compared with what had been permanently protected.

“This lopsided public land administration in favor of the oil and gas industry cannot continue,” Babbitt said.

Obama, in nominating Jewell on Wednesday, said she “knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows there is no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress.”

Since restructuring his staff after several key vacancies at the start of his second term, Obama has faced criticism for a less-than-diverse selection of mostly white men. Jewell is the first woman he’s appointed to a Cabinet position in his second term, but the president has said people shouldn’t rush to judgment until he’s finished filling the vacancies.

Jewell spoke only briefly after her nomination. “I have a great job at REI today, but there’s no role that compares to the call to serve my country as secretary of the Department of Interior,” she said.

The 56-year-old Jewell was born in England. Her family moved to the Seattle area when she was a young child, and she became a U.S. citizen. She became REI’s chief operations officer in 2000 and took over as chief executive officer of the $2 billion-a-year company five years later.

Anita Kumar contributed to this article.

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