Senate confirms Sally Jewell as Interior secretary

Seattle Times - Kyung Song

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Sally Jewell as the new secretary of the Interior Wednesday, sending the REI chief executive to lead a sprawling agency grappling with major decisions ranging from Arctic oil exploration to protection for the sage grouse.

The 87-11 vote came three weeks after Jewell’s nomination passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and two months after President Obama made her the first woman picked for his second-term Cabinet.

Jewell, 57, is expected to be sworn in at the White House as early as Thursday and immediately replace Ken Salazar, who resigned to return to his ranch in Colorado.

Jewell’s lifelong interest in conservation issues has environmentalists hopeful that she will build on Salazar’s advocacy for public lands and renewable energy.

At the same time, oil and gas interests are counting on Jewell’s stint as a former banker and one-time petroleum engineer to ease up on what they view as burdensome regulations.

“She understands the value of these lands” for recreational economy, said Brady Robinson of Access Fund, a nonprofit outdoors-advocacy group in Boulder, Colo. “If there weren’t people hiking, REI wouldn’t be a whatever billion-dollar company it is.”

President Obama said after the Senate vote that Jewell would bring “an important mix of strong management skills, appreciation for our nation’s tradition of protecting our public lands and heritage, and a keen understanding of what it means to be good stewards of our natural resources.”

Jewell, a mechanical engineer by training, joined Kent-based REI in 2000. She has been the chief executive of the $2 billion company since 2005.

Jewell skirted potential controversy during her confirmation hearing, including dodging any direct statement on whether she supports a tax on carbon. Nonetheless, a slew of tough issues await in her new job. 

Just two weeks after Jewell’s testimony, for instance, Salazar under pressure announced he would reconsider an earlier decision by the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service to block a proposed road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

In addition, environmentalist are urging the Interior Department to halt offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, where Shell Oil has run into a series of equipment mishaps and accidents.

Shell has voluntarily suspended drilling off the Alaska coast for this year. On Tuesday, ConocoPhillips said it would not drill there in 2014 because of regulatory uncertainty.

The Interior Department has said it will not allow Shell to resume drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas unless it addresses safety concerns.

And the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide over the next couple of years whether to declare the sage grouse as endangered, a move opposed by the oil industry because it would put 2,600 square miles of habitat off-limits to energy exploration.

In another important decision, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management will soon issue a final version of its  draft rule last year to require companies to disclose chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing on public and Indian lands.

Foes of fracking — which injects high-pressure water and chemicals to dislodge natural gas from shale rocks — criticized the proposed rule for requiring disclosure only after chemicals have already been deployed.

Natural-gas companies have argued hydraulic fracturing is subject to extensive state oversight and that geological variations could make uniform federal regulations a bad fit.

Daniel Whitten, a spokeswoman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said industry officials hope to work with Jewell to ensure “safe and responsible natural-gas development on federal lands that is free of unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to permitting.”

Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington spoke on the Senate floor in support of Jewell just ahead of the confirmation vote.

All 11 no votes came from Republicans. They included Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who grilled Jewell on her ties to conservation groups during her testimony before the Energy Committee; Marco Rubio of Florida and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Cantwell said Jewell will bring a pragmatic style above all else.

“I know that science will be her compass and I know that she is not going to have an ideological bent,” Cantwell said. “But she’s going to have a get-it-done mentality.”