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The challenges at the Interior Dept.

Editorial

A devoted outdoorswoman and chief executive at REI, Sally Jewell brings suitable attributes to the job. But she has little experience.

February 14, 2013
  • President Obama, left, announces Sally Jewell, chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc., as his nominee to become secretary of the U.S. Interior Department at the White House in Washington, D.C.
President Obama, left, announces Sally Jewell, chief executive officer… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg…)

U.S. secretaries of the Interior have seldom been renowned for being … well, renowned. Typically affable former members of Congress who reliably see things according to the president's point of view, they are nearly always Western conservationists, though their agreement on the extent to which natural resources should be exploited can wary widely.

Sally Jewell, President Obama's recent nominee for the post, fits that description pretty well, while bringing some additional attributes that suit the president's agenda beautifully. For one thing, she has been chief executive of outdoor retailer REI since 2005 and is reportedly a devoted outdoorswoman, which for conservationists takes some of the sting out of the fact that she started her career with the oil industry and spent most of it as a banker. That, on the other hand, will help mollify critics on the right who fear that Obama's tenure has been a big sellout to the environmental lobby. And then there's the convenient truth that Jewell is a woman, which serves as a balm to analysts irked by the fact that, to date, Obama's Cabinet picks have been made up exclusively of white men.

Does any of this make her qualified to be secretary of the Interior? Not especially. Unlike most secretaries of this or that, she has no government experience whatsoever. For a Cabinet post, that's not a disqualifier, but it's not helpful either.

It isn't going to be a simple four years. One of the challenging items on the secretary's plate is to come up with new rules on hydraulic fracturing, the process by which chemicals are injected into natural gas wells to eject the fossil fuels to the surface. These rules have been put off for months. Interior now says it will come up with a new version within the first quarter of the year, but we're not holding our breath. The problem is that the controversial process involves pumping unknown chemicals, whose effect on drinking water isn't clear, into waterways, where they might be capable of spreading. We side with conservationists in thinking that all chemicals used in this process on public lands should be disclosed at least 30 days before drilling commences; industry, however, wants to reveal the composition of the chemicals only after drilling is finished.

Meanwhile, there is a defining issue that will bookend the tenures of Jewell and predecessor Ken Salazar: better defining the rules, and analyzing the dangers, of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic. Salazar last month ordered a high-level review of Shell Alaska's oversight of safety procedures, contractor management and basic ability to undertake a tough job that to date has been plagued by costly glitches. It was a commendable decision by Salazar, which would have been more impressive if made earlier, and if Interior's entire decision-making process on Shell in the preceding years hadn't been so rushed and wrongheaded. We're hoping for better from Jewell.

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