President Obama this afternoon is scheduled to announce that REI chief Sally Jewell will be nominated to become the 51st secretary of the Interior, an unconventional pick that has garnered early praise from conservation groups and some oil industry backers.
Jewell, who has led the outdoor retailer since 2005, was considered a dark horse candidate to replace outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who plans to depart by the end of next month.
She will become the first woman to be nominated to Obama's Cabinet in his second term, which may silence critics who faulted the president for picking white males to fill top slots at the departments of Defense, State and the Treasury.
Jewell, who began her career as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. in southern Oklahoma and has never held a major public office, is a relative unknown on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers today said they will seek answers on how she would run the $12 billion agency, which handles everything from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to American Indian trust lands and conservation.
While Jewell is a Westerner, her nomination is a break from past picks of politicians for the Interior job, a post that requires constant diplomacy with lawmakers over the management of their constituents' lands and waters. Jewell, who is in her mid-50s, spent roughly two decades in corporate banking after her work for Mobil before heading to REI.
She will be under intense scrutiny over her stance on thorny policy issues including where to drill, how to regulate hydraulic fracturing and whether to pursue exploration in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. Some key senators have already questioned Obama's choice.
But while Jewell's conservation work aligns with Democrats -- Salazar's controversial "wild lands" policy was introduced in late 2010 at REI's flagship store in Denver -- evidence suggests Jewell has worked across party lines.
Jewell in 2008 made a high-profile appearance with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at an environmental forum outside Seattle as McCain was running for president, according to The Washington Post.
Records show Jewell, a Washington resident, last year contributed $2,500 to the Outdoor Industry Association Political Action Committee, which donated $88,000 to candidates of both parties, including moderate Republican Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Dave Reichert of Washington.
But for the past several years, Jewell's main focus has been to preserve recreational opportunities on public lands, a fact that has many environmentalists hopeful she will take a more cautious approach to leasing and drilling than Salazar.
Her nomination this morning was endorsed by the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, American Rivers and the Wyss Foundation, to name only a few.
"Her background suggests that she would bring needed balance to energy development on public lands," said Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, which advocates for access to, and protection of, backcountry areas for anglers.
Jewell has been active in several Obama administration efforts in recent years.
In February 2011, Jewell introduced President Obama in the East Wing of the White House for the unveiling of the administration's Great Outdoors initiative, an interagency effort that sought to connect Americans, particularly youth, to the outdoors, while also pushing Congress to increase funding for land preservation (E&ENews PM, Feb. 16, 2011).
Jewell, who reportedly climbed Antarctica's 16,067-foot Vinson Massif in 2011, has made personal calls to Senate members in recent years to support full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a keystone priority of Salazar and the White House as House Republicans sought to strip the fund to bare bones.
She was a commissioner on the National Parks Second Century Commission, which issued recommendations for the agency's 100th anniversary; serves on environmental boards; and "enjoys every outdoor activity under the sun," according to a profile by the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition.
A possible Senate hold?
In the hyperpartisan Senate, Jewell's affiliation with environmental groups could be a liability as she begins what is often a bruising confirmation process.
Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said the senator's approach to Jewell's nomination would be "colored" by Salazar's announcement yesterday that he opposes allowing a road through an Alaska wilderness area to support an Aleutian community, a decision that enraged the state's delegation (Greenwire, Feb. 5). A reporter for Alaska Public Radio yesterday said Murkowski is considering blocking the Interior nominee until her concerns over the road are addressed.
"So many of the decisions made by the Interior Secretary have a profound impact on Alaska, and other Western states," Murkowski said in a statement today. "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."
Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat who has broken ranks with his party over oil drilling and industry subsidies, said he, too, has questions about Jewell's resume.
"While I am pleased the president moved quickly to fill this critical post, I think there is more we need to learn about Sally Jewell and what this decision means for Alaska," he said. "The Department of Interior has enormous influence over Alaska's land, resources and its relationship with our state's First Peoples."
Salazar's decision as secretary to halt drilling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and protect some federal lands from drilling landed him in hot water with key Western Republicans. "The sins of her predecessor are going to weigh upon her," said one Republican congressional aide, who asked not to be named.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, today criticized Jewell for supporting the Conservation Alliance and the Outdoor Industry Association, which have supported proposals to protect wilderness-quality lands from oil and gas drilling and off-highway vehicle use.
"I have some reservations about President Obama's selection of Sally Jewell," Bishop said in a statement this morning. "Her company has intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas."
But she drew praise from Democrats. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and is running for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, said Jewell understands how protected lands translate into business opportunities for outdoor suppliers.
"She is proof positive that common sense, balanced conservation of our open spaces and natural resources can enrich communities, improve quality of life, and create jobs," Markey said in a statement. "She will have big boots to fill following the leadership of Ken Salazar, but I am confident she has the skills and passion to be a great leader of our public lands and resources."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called Jewell "an inspired choice" who would bring business expertise to the 70,000-employee agency.
"I am looking forward to working with Sally on the diverse issues facing Interior: ensuring taxpayers receive full value for resources produced from federal lands, managing the renewable and natural gas energy boom to ensure it is done in an environmentally responsible manner, and finding a long-term solution to provide resource-dependent communities across the country a fair share of revenues from federal lands," Wyden said.
Support from outside groups
Jewell's nomination today also garnered support from an unlikely combination of conservation groups and oil industry officials.
Tim Wigley, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said this morning said he is encouraged by Jewell's petroleum background and hopes she will bring "better balance" to Interior's management of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.
"Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation's energy portfolio," Wigley said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the new secretary."
Other oil industry officials congratulated Jewell but said they will reserve judgment until more is known about her energy policies.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which has criticized Salazar's decision to bar leasing in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, called Jewell's pick "a bit of a surprise" and said his group would take a "wait-and-see" approach.
"We look forward to hearing about her energy vision for America during the confirmation process," Luthi said in a statement. "We hope that her business and engineering experience will lead her to recognize the critical importance of our nation's offshore energy resources."
Said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, "We look forward to learning how Sally Jewell'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."
For conservationists, Jewell was an early favorite for the Interior post among the many other candidates for the job. Rumored candidates included former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes and a handful of former Western Democratic governors and lawmakers.
The pick was a departure from previous choices. Salazar was a Democratic senator from Colorado and former attorney general when he was picked. His predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne, was a Republican governor from Idaho, and he was preceded by Gale Norton, a Republican who had served as Colorado's attorney general.
But her choice drew near-universal praise from environmental groups.
"There are few more outspoken or dedicated champions in the effort to connect children with nature than Sally Jewell," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "Whether it's been through her work to get more kids outside or her accomplishments in building a business that recognizes the passion Americans have to explore the outdoors, Sally Jewell has demonstrated that she knows just how important our wild places are to our national legacy and our economy."
It is almost certain that Jewell, if confirmed, will tout the economic benefits of conservation as she advances President Obama's public lands agenda, as Salazar has done. She is almost certainly familiar with an Outdoor Industry Association report that found the outdoor recreation economy generates $646 billion in annual spending and supports 6.1 million domestic jobs.
In 2011, REI's more than 100 stores generated $1.8 billion in revenue, up 8.4 percent from the previous year. The company referred all inquiries about Jewell to the White House.
Jewell has been married for more than 30 years and has two adult children and a foster child, according to reports.