President Obama's nominee for Interior secretary was grilled this morning over how she would balance conservation and development on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, whether she would support a carbon tax and how she would regulate the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.
Sally Jewell, the CEO of outdoor retail giant REI, was also criticized by some Republican senators over her role as a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association and her support of outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's former "wild lands" policy.
But Democrats praised Jewell's business acumen and her commitment to protecting scenic lands that support $646 billion a year in outdoor recreation spending.
Jewell, a Washington state resident who was nominated early last month to replace Salazar, delivered carefully crafted remarks at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
She touted her work in the oil and gas industry and her personal experience "fracking" wells in the late 1970s while working for Mobil Oil Corp.
"I learned the industry from its source, working alongside my teammates, drilling and fracking new wells, and squeezing the last barrel of production out of some of our nation's oldest oil fields," Jewell said. "I have a commitment to the president's 'all of the above' energy strategy."
But while she pledged to provide certainty and clarity to industry, she did not offer specifics on how she would address the Bureau of Land Management's fracking rule or whether she would take steps to increase production of oil and natural gas on federal tracts. While domestic oil and gas production has soared over the past several years, the majority of that growth has occurred on private lands outside Interior's control.
"My knowledge of fracking, which is a little bit dated I will grant you but the principles are still the same, is that it's different by different regions," Jewell said. "I think working alongside states, working alongside scientists, working alongside industry is the right approach to come up with a set of rules that are safe for the environment but also support the opportunities [for drilling]."
Jewell also highlighted her experience as a young girl camping and hiking with her family in the Pacific Northwest at national parks including Mount Rainier, Olympic and Crater Lake. "I was hooked on the outdoors, and I have been ever since," she said.
Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he's encouraged that Jewell's personal love for the outdoors combined with her business acumen will help her maximize the economic value of public lands.
"Jewell's experience makes her well-positioned to maximize the jobs created and revenues generated for federal taxpayers from recreation on public lands and the businesses that are supporting it," he said. "The economics of public lands have changed. Recreation has become a big jobs engine, and it will be good for our economy as it grows bigger."
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's ranking member, said Jewell has less experience with public land management than previous Interior nominees. She said her Republican colleagues are concerned over her support for Salazar's wild lands order, which was introduced in late 2010 at REI's flagship store in Denver. The policy, which sought interim protections for wilderness-quality lands, was later revoked as a result of Republican furor.
"The issues in which you have weighed in, including the wild lands initiative, are unsettling to many," Murkowski said. "We need you to affirm that public lands provide not just a playground for recreational use, as important as that is, but also paychecks for countless energy producers, miners, loggers, ranchers."
Jewell pledged to support multiple use and said she will work with both Murkowski and Wyden on legislation seeking to ensure that resource-dependent communities get a fair share of energy revenues from public lands.
Murkowksi also reiterated her concern over the Fish and Wildlife Service's recent proposal to reject a 20-mile gravel road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, "a decision that has really rattled me to the core," she said. Murkowski, who has threatened to hold up Jewell's confirmation over the issue, called the decision a "prime example of federal overreach" and said she's hopeful Salazar will rule in favor of the safety of her constituents in King Cove.
"This issue should never reach your desk should you be confirmed," she said.
Murkowski also pressed Jewell to support the cleanup of scores of abandoned wells in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, which she called a "shameful eyesore that has been left by the federal government."
Jewell also took pointed questions from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) over her past statements suggesting she supports a tax on carbon dioxide to change the United States' energy consumption. As a Democrat, Manchin's vote for Jewell's confirmation would be key in a closely divided panel.
Manchin, the former governor of the coal-rich Mountain State, said he was concerned that a new rule being developed by Interior's Office of Surface Mining to protect streams would put his coal constituents out of business. Manchin asked Jewell to provide her definition of a stream, arguing that OSM's definition is too broad.
On climate change, Jewell did not say whether she would support a carbon tax, but said President Obama has indicated he won't make such a proposal. "A carbon tax is not something that would come before me in the role of secretary of Interior," she said.
But she added that the "scientific evidence is clear" and that she looks forward to tapping Interior's scientific resources to gird public lands for climate change impacts including wildfires, droughts and floods.
Jewell was also asked to defend her several years on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which Republicans have blamed for filing dozens of lawsuits challenging oil and gas development, coal plant emissions and motorized access to public lands.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said NPCA had filed at least 59 lawsuits while Jewell was on the board, many of which are still pending. He asked Jewell to recuse herself from any pending legal case or settlement, saying, "You have a fundamental conflict of interest."
Jewell said she was one of 30 board members at NPCA and that her first step in any Interior issue involving the nonprofit group would be to consult with the appropriate ethics officer.
"I played no role in the lawsuits," Jewell said.
Panel members urged Jewell to recognize how significantly Interior policies affect their constituents. The agency manages one-fifth of the U.S. landmass and more than a billion acres of federal waters.
"When Interior sneezes, we feel an earthquake in Nevada," said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), whose state contains the highest percentage of federal lands in the country.
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