Energy committee advances Interior secretary nominee — with strings attached

A last-minute deal on an Alaskan lands issue paved the way for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to advance President Barack Obama’s nomination of Sally Jewell to be Interior secretary on Thursday.

But the 19-3 vote — cast as even supportive senators listed a series of concerns with the business executive and looming Interior Department decisions — revealed that Jewell’s path to confirmation is far from clear.

More work has to be done to assuage the concerns of committee members, said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel’s top Republican, even though the Alaska dispute is resolved.

That fight centered around residents of the remote Aleutian village of King Cove, who wanted to build a gravel road across a wildlife refuge so they could access an all-weather airport. In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would block the road construction plan, amid environmental concerns for endangered birds, bears and other animals in the area.

When Murkowski pressed the issue, it threatened to derail — or at least delay — Jewell’s confirmation.

But under an agreement reached with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar late Wednesday and affirmed in a memo finalized Thursday morning the government will conduct a fresh review of the issue, after new consultations with local residents, a tour of the region and examining other information.

Jewell has been chief executive Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, for eight years, and previously worked three years as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. She also spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry, including a stint as an energy analyst.

If confirmed by the full Senate, Jewell would succeed Salazar, who plans to return to his home in Colorado. A final Senate debate and vote is not expected until next month, after Congress takes a two-week recess, and some senators threatened to hold up Jewell’s nomination over an array of concerns.

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The three no votes cast against Jewell on Thursday came from committee Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Lee of Utah and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Barrasso has said he believes Jewell’s past work on the National Parks Conservation Association board presents a major conflict of interest, given its past litigation against the federal government.

“During her tenure as vice chairman of that group, (it) has frequently sued the federal government to shut down energy production and has sought aggress regulations that threaten American jobs,” Barrasso said. “In some cases, she’ll be forced to defend policy decisions that her previous group has fought to overturn.”

Other senators signaled that their support came with caveats.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., for instance, said he remains worried about how broadly the federal government defines a “stream,” a verdict that would affect regulations on coal mining.

“There has been some overreaching and some misunderstanding” in the past, Manchin said.

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., want Jewell to work with them to ensure any federal protection of the sage grouse will not interfere with grazing and other activities on federal lands. Oil companies in Western states fear the endangered species listing could block them from developing broad swaths of the region.

Risch said he was reserving the right to place a hold on Jewell’s nomination if he doesn’t see continued “progress” on the issue.

But the energy committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Jewell would draw on her diverse background in seeking solutions.

“Sally Jewell is not going to agree with each of us on every single issue,” he said. “What I know for certain is she is going to give each member of this committee her ear and her expertise that comes from having managed to pack a host of professional careers — petroleum engineer, CEO and banker, to name just a few — into just one lifetime.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she was encouraged that Jewell has “spent some time in the oil and gas arena, that has fraced a well, that has been a geologist, that understands the importance and the value and the promise of mining the resources that the United States has, but with the balance of her passion for the outdoors.”