WASHINGTON — Recreational Equipment Inc. chief executive officer Sally Jewell worked Thursday to convince Republican senators rattled by her leadership in conservation groups that she supports fossil fuel development and should be the nation’s next interior secretary.
“Many people, as they enjoy the outdoors, jump in a car to get there,” she said at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But Jewell also pledged to support renewable energy and said climate change is not in debate.
“There is no question in my mind it is real and that the scientific evidence backs it up,” Jewell told the senators.
President Barack Obama last month nominated Jewell, who is from Washington state’s Puget Sound area, to replace the departing Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior.
It’s a job that involves overseeing 500 million acres of public lands and has vast responsibilities including oil and gas development, endangered species, national parks and Native American affairs.
Jewell tried throughout her confirmation hearing Thursday to strike a middle ground. She spoke repeatedly of her desire to balance development and conservation and embrace an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power and renewables.
She emphasized her resource development bona fides: Jewell has a mechanical engineering degree and worked for Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil, in Oklahoma and Colorado for four years after college. She told the senators Thursday that she worked on elements of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and was involved with the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of a well. She left Mobil Oil in 1981 and spent the next 19 years in commercial banking in the Seattle area before becoming an executive at the outdoor clothing and equipment retailer REI, headquartered in Kent, Wash.
Jewell stressed that her commercial banking work had often involved resource development financing, including working with mining companies.
At least one of the Republican senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, was impressed by her background in oil and gas and commercial banking. “How did you get appointed by this administration?” he asked. “It sounds like someone a Republican president would appoint.”
But other Republican senators expressed alarm at Jewell’s role in conservation advocacy, particularly as board member and vice chairwoman of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said the parks association has threatened jobs by filing lawsuits over coal-fired power plants and other environmental issues.
Barrasso asked Jewell to agree to recuse herself from any issue the group is involved with. Jewell responded that she is just one of roughly 30 NPCA board members and has no role in the lawsuits. Jewell said she would consult Interior Department ethics officials on any potential conflict of interest issues.
Senators also pressed Jewell on whether she supports the idea of a carbon tax, discussed as a way to raise revenue and address climate change.
Jewell wouldn’t answer, saying the president has made clear he won’t be proposing a carbon tax and it’s an issue that won’t come before her as interior secretary.
Jewell presented herself at the hearing as cautiously pro-development and did not draw any major differences with her predecessor, Salazar.
Jewell said she is in favor of carefully exploring for oil in the Arctic waters off Alaska. She also said she supports efforts to find out how much oil could be in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, with the possibility of allowing Atlantic offshore drilling down the road.
She said she will work with states and the petroleum industry on rules for the controversial process of fracking that protect the environment but still allow drilling.
A vote on Jewell’s confirmation hasn’t been scheduled. But Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., lauded Jewell on Thursday and said her blend of business and conservation experience is impressive. Other Democrats also praised the nominee. Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said Jewell has navigated the business world while keeping REI’s commitment to the outdoors.
“She’s the right person at the right time to be secretary of interior,” Murray said.