Sally Jewell’s links to conservationists draw GOP questions during confirmation hearing

Seattle Times - Kyung Song

WASHINGTON — Sally Jewell, President Obama’s pick for Interior secretary, has been billed as a petroleum-engineer-turned-CEO and environmental advocate who can juggle a job that often pits conservation against energy exploration.

But Jewell’s dual perspective didn’t shield her from sometimes-skeptical questioning during her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, particularly from Republicans wary of her credentials as a conservationist.

Jewell, chief executive of Kent-based REI, dodged direct answers on whether she supports a tax on carbon emissions, defended her ties to an environmental-advocacy group and parried questions on hydraulic fracturing.

Through nearly three hours of testimony, Jewell, 57, maintained a measured, solicitous tone before members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She will need majority backing from the panel’s 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans before the full Senate votes on her nomination, possibly within a couple of weeks.

Jewell earned an engineering degree and worked in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Colorado for three years before becoming a banker for 19 years. In 2000, she joined REI, the $2 billion outdoor recreation retailer, and rose to chief executive in 2005. She played up her unorthodox career during her opening statement.

Jewell grew up in a family of outdoor enthusiasts, hiking and camping at Olympic National Park and Crater Lake, and as an adult has scaled Mount Rainier and the peaks of Antarctica. But she’s also worked with oil and gas executives, ranchers, miners and Native American leaders, whose issues come under the Interior Department’s purview.

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander marveled at Jewell’s varied employment history, which included working on an Alaska pipeline and developing a gas well before turning to banking.

“Sounds like someone a Republican president would appoint,” Alexander said, triggering laughter among the 80 or so spectators.

Still, some GOP senators raised repeated concerns about Jewell’s environmental advocacy, including efforts to designate more federal lands as wilderness and an effort to get Americans, particularly children, in touch with nature.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, the top Republican on the panel, called that part of Jewell’s biography “unsettling to many.” Murkowski pressed Jewell on how vigorously she would push for more oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

“Can you tell the committee anything that might surprise or even concern some of your friends in the environmental community?” Murkowski asked.

Jewell replied that she would strike a balance between protecting public lands and tapping them for coal, oil, gas and other resources.

Though a political novice, Jewell deftly handled several contentious questions.

She skirted a demand from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., on whether she’d support a carbon tax saying, “A carbon tax is not something that would come before me in a role as secretary of the Interior. I would not be in a position to take a position, frankly, around this issue.”

In a 2008 interview, Jewell was more explicit.

“We are not paying for the cost to the environment, of the carbon that we use, and we should be paying for that,” she said. “I   know tax is a dirty word, but if we were paying a carbon tax that accounted for our impact on greenhouse gases, that would in fact change our consumption.”

Some of the sharpest grilling came from Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. Echoing criticisms from other conservatives, he asked about Jewell’s vice chairmanship of the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has sued to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants and filed other environmental suits.

Barrasso said the parks association has filed five dozen lawsuits against the federal government. He asked Jewell, if confirmed as secretary, to recuse herself from implementing any settlements from the suits.

Jewell said she’s one of some 30 association board members and that “I have nothing to do with their litigation strategy.”

Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray introduced Jewell at the start of the hearing. Cantwell is a member of the panel but Murray is not.

Cantwell noted Jewell would facehuge challenges: The department is grappling with regulatory issues and lawsuits, entrenched bureaucracy and key decisions on climate change and deep water drilling.

The agency’s vast portfolio includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, the committee’s Democratic chairman, provided a counterbalance to the GOP’s focus on drilling for oil and gas by stressing the economic value of outdoor recreation.

Both he and Jewell cited the $646 billion Americans spend yearly while hunting, hiking, fishing and bird watching and other activities.

The energy committee is expected to vote on Jewell’s confirmation within a week or two, with the full Senate following shortly after.