The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning voted convincingly to advance the nomination of Sally Jewell to become secretary of Interior, a move that came hours after a late-night accord was struck over a proposed road through an Alaskan wilderness.
With the dissent of only three Republicans -- Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah -- the committee reported Jewell's nomination to the full Senate, which is not expected to take up her confirmation until early April.
The vote followed the announcement this morning of an agreement between outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Energy Committee's top Republican, for the agency to conduct additional reviews of a proposed 20-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on a remote Aleutian island.
The Fish and Wildlife Service last month recommended rejecting the road, citing impacts to waterfowl, grizzlies, salmon and wilderness values. But it drew fire from Murkowski, who threatened to block Jewell's confirmation over concerns for the safety of King Cove residents.
In a memo issued this morning, Salazar ordered a new round of consultations with Native Alaskans and a secretarial visit to King Cove to gather additional public input and assess the safety benefits of building the road.
"I believe additional steps are appropriate before a final decision is made," Salazar wrote to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
While the decision drew criticism from some conservationists, it was enough to defuse the standoff with Murkowski, who voted to advance Jewell's nomination, with some reservations.
"We all have situations where we are working with, and sometimes against, our federal agencies, where we don't feel like we are being heard, and sometimes the conversations need to go a little bit deeper," Murkowski said. "I'm pleased that Secretary Salazar has agreed to take a second look at this."
The review is likely to take at least several months, which means a final decision over the Izembek road will likely fall to Jewell, if she is confirmed. New information could trigger a supplemental National Environmental Policy Act review, the memo said.
But Murkowski said she and other Republicans are still concerned that a majority of Jewell's responses to written questions last week were incomplete. She pledged to follow up with the nominee on a host of energy and natural resource issues, including her stance on whether the Fish and Wildlife Service should recommend that wilderness be designated in the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On balance, however, Murkowski said Jewell appears willing to bring diverse interests together.
"She has asserted that her experience and her skill is bringing diverse people together to solve problems on which they are divided," Murkowski said. "I've paid attention to that. She says specifically that she is a convener. I need her to be a convener. We need her to be a convener."
In a similar vein, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said he was optimistic that Jewell would embrace the collaborative model that he helped lead as former governor of the Gem State to craft a state-tailored roadless plan for several million acres of federal forests.
But he expressed continued concerns over Interior's management of the sage grouse, an imperiled bird, on public lands in his state, going so far as to threaten a hold on Jewell's nomination if progress is not made.
"I have been impressed with the willingness of the agency to step back, take a look at this and decide, 'Are we going to follow the fear of litigation path?' or 'Are they going to follow science?' And indeed, they are showing very distinct signs that they are going to follow the science," Risch said.
While he voted "yes," he offered a caveat.
"I want everyone to understand I reserve the right to vote no; more importantly, I reserve the right to place a hold when the nomination gets to the floor if indeed I don't see continued progress on this particular issue."
Jewell, who became CEO of the outdoor retailer REI several years ago after serving two decades as a corporate banker and before that as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp., was also praised for her ability to balance energy development and conservation on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.
"There's never been a more important time for there to be someone at the helm of this agency that understands [the oil and gas] industry," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), said of Jewell last night, "but also in her favor has a passion for the environment and particularly an understanding of the recreation industry, which is an industry which is underappreciated and under-recognized in this country for the amount of jobs it creates now and could create in the future."
Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who helped broker last night's agreement between Salazar and Murkowski, had similar praise for Jewell.
Jewell "is going to give each member of this committee her ear and her expertise that comes from having managed to pack a host of professional careers -- petroleum engineer, CEO and banker, to name just a few -- into just one lifetime," he said. "I have full confidence in Sally Jewell's ability to take on this important assignment."
But others warned that Jewell needs more time to provide answers about her past association with the National Parks Conservation Association and the Conservation Alliance, two groups that have sued or supported scores of lawsuits seeking to restrict oil and gas development and off-highway vehicle access to public lands.
"There are a number of senators that share my concern about moving too swiftly to confirm the nominee by the Senate, and I've heard that from colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are looking for more information," said Barrasso, who voted "no" but stopped short of threatening a procedural hold on the nominee.
"She's been nominated to a job that is critically important to Western states," Barrasso added. "The decisions she will make as head of the Department of Interior will have far-reaching and lasting impact on jobs and our local and state economies and on the future management of public lands. I think the nominee deserves the time she needs to provide complete answers."
Salazar's agreement to postpone a decision over the Izembek road has already drawn scorn from environmentalists who had implored him to follow the advice of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists.
Desiree Sorenson-Groves, of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said a road through the refuge would be a waste of federal tax dollars. In 1998, the federal government invested $37 million in a hovercraft service and medical upgrades to improve public safety in King Cove, she said.
She and other environmentalists fear a road would eventually be used to transport seafood, even though current legislation prohibits it from being used for commercial purposes.
"Why should U.S. taxpayers shell out $75 million for China and Japan to eat more fish?" Sorenson-Groves said. "FWS had an exhaustive public process that members of King Cove actively participated in -- in fact, a quote from an April 2010 public meeting clearly spells out the real reason behind the road: 'Peter Pan Seafoods will use the road and the road will help transport fresh product' -- meaning fish."