WASHINGTON – President Obama on Wednesday nominated Sally Jewell, a former oil engineer and banker and current chief executive of a national outdoor retailer, to lead the Interior Department, making an unorthodox pick for his first woman nominee to his second-term Cabinet.
The president and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., Jewell has no government and little public policy experience, and has spent her career far from Washington. But her resume has elements that appealed to both of the two feuding interests that consume much of the debate at the department that controls public lands: the oil and gas extraction industries seeking access to public lands, as well as environmentalists seeking to preserve them.
Jewell, 56, started her career as a petroleum engineer working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Colorado for Mobil Oil Corp. She then moved to the corporate banking industry, and joined the REI board in 1996, becoming chief operating officer four years later.
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She has been credited with expanding the Washington state-based retailer's Internet operations and contributing the membership cooperative’s resources to environmental stewardship. Jewell, an avid outdoorswoman, serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Assn. as well as the Board of Regents of the University of Washington.
In announcing his choice, Obama cast her as someone who would seek a balance between protection and economic development of public lands.
“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” Obama said in remarks 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. She’s shown that a company with more than $1 billion in sales can do the right thing for our planet.”
In fact, little is known about Jewell’s policy positions. And while environmental groups largely praised her nomination, Republicans and some Democrats withheld judgment.
“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 (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Senate committee on energy and national resources. “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.”
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If confirmed, Jewell will replace Ken Salazar, who served in the post throughout the president’s first term and led a period of expansion of oil and gas drilling on public lands. Salazar plans to return to Colorado. Obama on Wednesday praised the former senator as a close friend and trusted advisor.
Salazar, he said, had “ushered in a new era of conservation of our land, our water and our wildlife.”
“He’s opened more public land and water for safe and responsible energy production – not just gas and oil, but also wind and solar – creating thousands of new jobs and nearly doubling our use of renewable energy in this country,” Obama said.
Jewell is the first woman to be named to lead a Cabinet-level department in the second term. After naming a few white men to top jobs, Obama said the next round of nominees would include more women and be more racially diverse.
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