Obama taps business exec for Interior Dept. secretary

In a break with tradition, President Barack Obama looked to the business world — instead of the pool of public officials from Western states — in nominating Sally Jewell to succeed Ken Salazar as head of the Interior Department.

The CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., Jewell’s business background extends beyond her eight-year tenure heading that chain of more than 100 recreational and outdoor equipment stores. The Washington state native previously worked three years as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. in Oklahoma and Colorado and later spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry, including a stint as an energy analyst.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” Obama said Wednesday afternoon, in a White House event announcing Jewell. “She knows there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress.”

Jewell said she was “humbled and energized” to be chosen for the job, and joked that she would be trying to fill Salazar’s boots but had no chance of fitting into the cowboy hat he often wears.

Before assuming the Interior post, Jewell would still have to win Senate confirmation and survive a confirmation hearing in front of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Although there were no red flags surfacing Wednesday that could spell major trouble, she is likely to face intense questioning about her vision for conservation and energy development on public lands.

Jewell’s diverse background could make her uniquely well suited for heading the Interior Department, since it oversees the national parks and grazing, recreation, conservation, energy development and other activities on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.

If confirmed, Jewell would be arriving at the Department at a pivotal time, as its agencies draft new mandates governing oil and gas drilling on public lands and develop new requirements for safety equipment used to guard offshore wells. The Interior’s Bureau of Land Management just announced it was rewriting a proposal it first unveiled last spring to force companies to disclose chemicals used to extract oil and gas from federal lands.

The choice of Jewell appeared to surprise official Washington D.C., which had been whispering about possible replacements among the pool of former lawmakers and governors of Western states. That is a common path to Interior, because of the abundance of federal lands in that part of the country.

Since Salazar announced his resignation in January, oil and gas industry leaders had suggested Obama consider Western candidates with governing experience who have a deep understanding of the mixed use of those lands, including the need to balance energy development with other activities.

Randall Luthi, the head of the National Ocean Industries Association, and a former drilling regulator, noted that because the selection of Jewell is a “bit of a surprise,” the nomination “will likely be met with a cautious wait-and-see approach by the offshore energy industry.”

Still, citing Jewell’s oil sector background, industry officials were cautiously optimistic on Wednesday.

Jim Noe, an executive with Hercules Offshore and the head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, said he was “encouraged” by Jewell’s selection because she has “experience in the energy industry as a petroleum engineer and … as a CEO, knows what it means to run a business and answer to its stakeholders.”

“Ms. Jewell’s resume suggests that she may be well-suited to improving the efficiency of our nation’s energy regulatory regime while ensuring the continued practice of safe and environmentally conscious energy production,” Noe added.

Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said he expected Jewell’s “experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader” would allow her to “bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio.”

Some other industry advocates and allies were wary.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said he looked forward “to learning how Sally Jewel’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.”

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will hold Jewell’s confirmation hearing, stopped short of an endorsement, noting only that “the livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity.”

Murkowski’s counterpart on the committee, Democratic chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon, called Jewell “an inspired choice.”

“Her experience leading a nearly $2 billion outdoor recreation company, combined with her years of work in the financial sector, puts her in a position to bring a new vision to the Interior Department,” Wyden said. “Her record shows that she understands the importance of preserving our public lands for future generations, as well as the critical links between public lands, natural resources and economic growth.”

Environmentalists said Jewell’s long background supporting the national parks and recreation on public lands could herald a new era of conservation.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, noted that Jewell “has a unique appreciation for public lands and has been nationally recognized for her conservation efforts,” making her “the right choice to promote conservation and protect America’s national treasures.”

Frances Beinecke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Jewell “has the mind of an engineer, the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman,” making her a natural pick for the job.

And Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Jewell’s home state of Washington, stressed Jewell’s track record as a CEO and as an outdoor enthusiast.

Acknowledging “a strong working relationship” with Jewell, Murray said the nominee “understands the tremendous asset that our public lands are, particularly to the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation based economy.”

Jewell’s conservation cred comes from her service as a member of the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which works to support and restore the park system. And Jewell’s leadership of the REI co-operative is no accident, a natural outgrowth of her passion for the outdoors, including camping, hiking and skiing.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile in 2005 described her as an thoughtful leader with a fondness for biking and kayaking. In a 2006 interview, Jewell said she drew energy and inspiration for her daily work because it was a “labor of love.”

Jewell also has worked to support the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Program. In 2011, she introduced Obama at a White House conference on the initiative, noting the economic benefits of robust outdoor recreation in the United States.

Jewell becomes the first woman named to Obama’s second-term cabinet, which is seeing the departures of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Salazar plans to return to his wife and family in Colorado by the end of March. His four-year tenure at the head of Interior has been stormy, marked by some bitter, high-profile battles with oil and gas industry leaders who complained he was promoting renewable energy projects on public lands while downplaying traditional fossil fuel development.

Before Salazar took office, no large-scale solar projects on federal lands had been approved. But Salazar’s Interior Department green-lighted 18 of them, the result of an initiative meant to streamline permitting of those projects. All told, since 2009, the Interior Department has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands totaling more than 10,000 megawatts.

Salazar also presided over the reorganization of government agencies that police offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He drew fire for his decision to impose a five-month ban on most deep-water exploration while oil was still gushing from BP’s failed Macondo well.