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REI chief is Obama's pick for Interior secretary

Sally Jewell lacks government experience. But her credentials in engineering, banking and conservation could appeal to feuding interest groups.

February 06, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • Sally Jewell, President Obama's first female nominee to his second-term Cabinet, is congratulated by outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Sally Jewell, President Obama's first female nominee to his second-term… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — President Obama nominated a former petroleum engineer and commercial banker who is also a conservationist and chief executive of an environmentally conscious retailer to lead the Interior Department on Wednesday, making an unorthodox selection for his first female nominee to his second-term Cabinet.

Sally Jewell, president and chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., has no government credentials and little public policy experience. But her resume could appeal to the feuding interests that drive much of the debate at the department in charge of managing federal lands: the oil and gas extraction industries seeking access to public land and the environmentalists seeking preservation.

If confirmed by the Senate, Jewell, 56, will replace Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator who held the post throughout the president's first term. Salazar has overseen an expansion of resource extraction on federal lands, to the dismay of environmental groups, which contend that the push for energy independence has too often trumped environmental concerns.

Salazar, however, has also drawn fire from Republicans who blame the administration for not moving fast enough to open untouched areas to industry exploration.

Without a public record, little is known about where Jewell will stand in the fight. Environmental groups praised her nomination, while industry groups and Republican lawmakers withheld judgment.

In announcing his choice, Obama cast Jewell as someone who would seek a balance.

"She knows the link between conservation and good jobs," Obama said at the White House. "She knows that there's no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress, that, in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand."

Jewell graduated with an engineering degree and started her career working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Colorado for Mobil Oil Corp. She then moved to the banking industry, where she advised banks on their energy assets, according to a profile in the Seattle Times.

Over nearly two decades, she rose in the banking industry, eventually heading Washington Mutual's commercial banking division before joining the REI board in 1996. She became chief operating officer four years later and took over the top job in 2005.

Her REI tenure was marked by considerable growth and expansion. At the same time, she and the $1.8-billion company supported initiatives that sought to draw new, more diverse communities to the outdoors.

The REI Foundation contributed to the National Audubon Society to build nature centers that introduce the outdoors to underserved communities. Jewell and REI worked with the Sierra Club to get veterans and inner-city youth, among others, to the parks and to support local hiking and outdoors chapters. Jewell, an avid outdoorswoman, was elected to the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Assn. in 2004.

Her work led her to America's Great Outdoors program, an Interior Department initiative aimed, in part, at encouraging conservation and recreation among young people.

"Sally Jewell has the mind of an engineer, the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Jewell's work at REI may help her understand the economic benefits of tourism and recreation, some environmentalists said. "I think she'll bring a breath of fresh air to the job," said Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations for the National Audubon Society. "She understands how many jobs and how much economic activity is tied to the outdoors."

But her strong ties to environmental groups have made oil and gas interests and their political supporters wary, although they said they looked forward to getting acquainted with her.

"What we have seen out of the recreation industry the last few years has been advocacy for conservation-only policies," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas lobby. "I think that the recreation industry forgets how dependent it is on oil and gas: It's the basic feedstock of fleece, nylon and plastic, and it's how their customers take that great gear into the mountains."

Key Republicans also said they wanted to hear from Jewell.

"The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee. "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."

A top priority for environmentalists in the second term will be halting Shell Oil's exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, an effort already beset by significant problems. Industry wants Arctic exploration to continue and contends adequate safeguards against oil spills are in place.

Environmentalists also want to see tighter regulation of the controversial oil and gas production method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Industry contends that such measures would be onerous and redundant, given existing state rules.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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