President Barack Obama nominated REI chief executive Sally Jewell to lead the Department of the Interior Wednesday. It’s a Cabinet position with incredible influence over Alaska.
And by virtually every account, the pick surprised everyone.
The Department of Interior oversees critical programs in Alaska – the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Land Management, the National Park Service, and the offices that promote and regulate off-shore drilling.
In his announcement, Mr. Obama rattled off a long list of accomplishments outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar has achieved, including opening more land and water to energy production.
And now the president turns to another westerner, Sally Jewell, to continue on that path. She comes from the private sector and the Seattle region.
“I’m willing to bet she will be the first Secretary of the Interior who frequently hikes mailbox peak in her native Washington State, and who once spent a month climbing mountains in Antarctica, which is just not something I’d think of doing,” Obama joked. “It seems like it’d be cold, and I was born in Hawaii.”
Jewell’s name had not been publicly floated. Most of the names circulating for the post came from within the Interior Department or other parts of government.
Senator Lisa Murkowski says Jewell’s private sector background would lend a healthy perspective to the department, but the transition to a massive government bureaucracy could be hard.
“When you’re coming from outside the government, dealing within the government confines can be very, very difficult,” Murkowski said. “[Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu is a perfect case in point: Brilliant man, great credentials, but not a lot of background when it came to operating a department like Energy. And I think he’s been subjected to a lot of criticism for that.”
Senator Murkowski says she’s met Jewell before at a cocktail party.
“We talked about going hiking together,” Murkowski said. “She strikes me as that kind of person, somebody that is very easy going, very unpretentious.”
But that doesn’t mean a yes vote is guaranteed. Murkowski worries Jewell could be too sympathetic to the environmental community.
Before the full Senate can vote on the nomination, Jewell needs to pass a vote in the Energy Committee. If that happens, Senator Mark Begich does not know how he’d vote.
“I am not just going to blankly support her because the president wants someone in that position,” Begich said.
Begich is withholding judgment until he gets to know where Jewell stands on key issues like Arctic drilling.
“The president has already said that is a policy they’re moving forward on, development of the Arctic,” said Begich. “But if the Interior Secretary isn’t supportive or slows down the process, that would be very problematic.”
Senator Begich also appreciates that Jewell has been in the private sector. Before REI, she worked in commercial banking, and out of college, in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Colorado for Mobil.
She’s been active in elections, giving money to many candidates. She’s mostly donated to Democrats, including a $250 contribution to Senator Begich in his 2008 Senate run. She also gave $500 to Senator Murkowski in 2009.
Absent from her donor list is Congressman Don Young. He says he’s disappointed in the pick because he does not think she has an understanding of public lands issues.
“I do believe her interests lie in recreational purposes and not multiple use of the lands,” Young said.
The oil and gas industry is keeping relatively quiet. John Felmy is the chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. He says he welcomes a fresh start at Interior.
“We’ve had some differences with Secretary Salazar,” Felmy said. “We’ve had some onshore leases that have been pulled back. We’re disappointed in that because we think we have an enormous amount of oil and gas that we can develop. We’d like to move forward as fast as possible.”
Felmy would not say whether API would intervene in the confirmation process with an ad campaign or publicly oppose the nomination.
Some environmental groups are excited about the pick. Cindy Shogan directs the Alaska Wilderness League. She says Jewell’s hardest task will be fighting against strong support for Arctic drilling.
“If she wants to make her mark, she’s going to have to make sure she has the support of the delegation, or is willing to make decisions that will disappoint them,” Shogan said.
There is no date set for the confirmation hearings. It could be as early as next week, though that’s unlikely. After that, the Senate is on recess until the last week of February.
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