Obama’s Interior nominee eyed cautiously by energy industry

Energy and business groups in western Colorado are cautiously optimistic about the President’s nominee for Interior Secretary, in these early stages of the process.

Kelly Sloan

Following Ken Salazar’s resignation in January, President Obama nominated Sally Jewell, the Chief Executive Officer of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), to head the Department of the Interior. The Department is responsible for the management and conservation of roughly 500 million acres of federal land – including development of resources within that acreage – and oversees such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.

With nearly 70% of land in Mesa County federally controlled, and nearly as much in neighboring energy-rich Garfield and Rio Blanco Counties, the Department of the Interior and it’s various sub-agencies exert an enormous amount of influence on the regional economy, making the nominee for Secretary in charge of the department a person of considerable interest to industry and business groups. Recent controversies surrounding the Department’s management decisions in the area, such as oil shale leasing , drilling on the Roan Plateau and Thompson Divide area, wilderness designations, along with several Resource Management Plans and leasing decisions in the region, highlight the importance – and the often contentious nature – of the position.

In announcing her nomination earlier this month, President Obama acknowledged this tension, citing it, in fact, as one of his reasons for selecting Ms. Jewell. In his statement during the nomination, the President indicated that she would balance the seemingly conflicting needs of economic development and conservation, noting her experience in both the outdoor recreation and oil and gas industries.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” President Obama said. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”

But some in the energy industry say that the current administrations actions have not always coincided with similar statements made in the past.

Tim Wigley, President of Western Energy Alliance – a frequent critic of the policies of outgoing Interior Secretary Salazar – said in a statement following the President’s State of The Union speech last week that “time and time again President Obama says the right things publically when he talks about our nation’s energy and economic potential,” however went on to note that while energy production has increased in recent years on private land, “federal lands are not keeping pace.”


Sally Jewell, born Sarah Roffey in England, moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 4 years old. She grew up in Seattle, and graduated from the University of Washington in 1978 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She began her professional career as an engineer with Mobil oil in Oklahoma and Colorado, a position she held for 3 years. In 1981, she was hired by Ranier Bank as a petroleum engineer to advise on oil and gas loans. Jewell remained in the banking industry for nearly 20 years, ending up at Washington Mutual. An outdoors enthusiast and avid hiker and mountain climber, Jewell joined the Board of Directors of REI in 1996, before accepting a position as the company’s Chief Operating Officer in 2000. She became CEO in 2005.

Ms. Jewell’s relative lack of political experience may make her an unusual choice for such a political appointment, a quality which cuts both ways. Some say that her lack of public policy experience makes her under qualified for such a politically-charged position, suggesting she may be too easily manipulated by environmental special interests.

Others say that a person with her business credentials is just what is needed to handle the reigns of the DOI.

Political donations and advocacy

Jewell is not a complete stranger to politics, however; In addition to having introduced President Obama at a White House conference on “America’s Great Outdoor Initiative” in 2011, she has been active on the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association

(NPCA) since 2004. The NPCA has been involved in a number of environmental lawsuits since that time, including a 2004 suit against an Xcel generating station in Minnesota; a 2008 suit against a Duke Energy coal – fired plant in North Carolina; a 2009 lawsuit to block the Bush administration’s rule allowing loaded concealed firearms in national parks; and a 2011 suit against the National Park Service for allowing motorized off-road vehicle use in certain public lands in Florida.

REI has also been involved in environmental advocacy under her tenure as CEO, including membership in such environmental organizations as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association and the Conservation Alliance. Critics such as Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee’s public lands panel, note that the company has also actively promoted the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, and that Ken Salazar announced his ultimately repealed Wild Lands Policy, decried by many as a way to side-step the Congressional Wilderness designation process, outside the Denver REI offices.

Sally Jewell has also been a substantial contributor to political candidates, mostly Democrats. According to Federal Election Commission Records, she contributed $10,000 to President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, donating under her given name of Sarah. She also donated to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has made numerous donations to candidates and Political Action Committees over the years, including to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in Washington, and to Colorado’s Sen. Mark Udall. She has also given to the campaigns of both Alaska Senators, Democrat Mark Begich in ’08, and $500 to Republican Lisa Murkowski in ’09.

Business and industry reaction

Reaction to the news of Ms. Jewells nomination has been cautious within the local business and energy communities. Bonnie Peterson, Executive Director of Club 20, says that the organization is taking a wait-and-see approach to the nominee.

“Club 20 has a policy supporting reasonable and balanced development of resources in western Colorado,” Peterson said, “and we hope the new Secretary, if appointed, will work in the direction of allowing such balanced development to occur.”

WEA’s Wigley took a similar approach; “We welcome the nomination of REI CEO Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary,” he said. “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.”

But Wigley did indicate that he hopes for a change in direction within the DOI, which many believe has taken an overly-restrictive stance against energy development on federal land. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment.”

David Ludlum, Executive Director for the West Slope Oil and Gas Association took a similarly tentative position on the nomination. “We hope that the talking points in the President’s State of the Union speech, including expanding energy development permits on public lands, will transcend Ms. Jewell’s personal history of involvement with anti-development conservation groups,” he said. “With her background in retail and manufacturing, we hope she will bring an understanding to the department that the products that come out of the wellhead help put products on the retail rack” adding that he hopes that she will “support policies to increase domestic energy production.”

U.S. House Representative Scott Tipton, whose district includes most of the public lands in western Colorado, said in a statement that he was also hopeful that Ms. Jewell would be able, if confirmed, to find the elusive balance in the department’s obligations:

“The Secretary of Interior should be a champion of our nation’s lands, striving to achieve a balance of conservation and responsible use of our abundant natural resources. The people of the 3rd District rely on public lands for energy, water, world-class recreation and thousands of jobs, and I’m hopeful that if Sally Jewell is confirmed as Secretary of the Interior by the Senate, she will work to protect our precious open spaces, as well as the critical jobs tied to them.”

Sally Jewell’s appointment now awaits Senate hearings ahead of a confirmation vote. It is expected that her background, professional history, and personal views on energy development and public land management will come under close scrutiny. In the meantime, Colorado’s energy industry, wary after battles with the Salazar-led Interior Department, will keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.