WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's nominee for interior secretary pledged Thursday to take a balanced approach to energy that would expand and diversify production on public lands while protecting the environment.
Sally Jewell, president of Recreational Equipment Inc., told a Senate committee that she supports Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, which embraces fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal as well as renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Jewell also said she will work to achieve Obama's goal of doubling renewable electricity generation by 2020 and vowed to use the Interior Department's scientific resources to combat climate change.
"From energy development to grazing to logging, tourism and outdoor recreation, our lands and waters power our economy and create jobs," Jewell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at her confirmation hearing. Jewell, who has never worked for the government, cited federal statistics showing that the Interior Department generated more than $12 billion in revenue from energy production last year, and that visitors to national parks generated an estimated $30 billion in economic activity.
"These are impressive numbers. They underscore the important balance that the Department of the Interior must maintain to ensure that our public lands and waters are managed wisely, using the best science available, to harness their economic potential while preserving their multiple uses for future generations," she said.
Senators from both parties were generally cordial toward Jewell, but several Republicans, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, questioned her service on the board of directors of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group that works to protect and enhance national parks. The group has filed dozens of lawsuits against the government and has sought to block a federal law allowing firearms in national parks and to stop development of coal mines and other energy production.
Barrasso called the sheer number of lawsuits "unsettling" and said Jewell's status as vice chairman of the NCPA's board posed potential conflicts of interest on a host of issues, including a looming rule to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands. Fracking is a type of drilling in which water, sand and chemicals are in injected underground to break up dense rock that holds oil and natural gas.
Barrasso called on Jewell to recuse herself from any action that involved an NPCA lawsuit. Jewell responded that she played no role in deciding what lawsuits the group filed but that she would approach the Interior Department's ethics adviser on a case-by-case basis.
NPCA President Tom Kiernan said in a statement that Jewell's nomination as interior secretary "validates her leadership abilities and commitment to stewarding our nation's public lands."
While Jewell has been a long-standing board member of NPCA, "it's important to clarify that Sally Jewell had no involvement in determining or approving NPCA's lawsuits," Kiernan said. "As a nonprofit advocacy organization, NPCA's primary goal is to work with agencies, stake holders and American citizens to protect and preserve our national parks."
Kiernan called lawsuits "an unfortunate consequence of disputes" over federal policies and "a last-resort strategy" for the group.
Obama nominated Jewell last month to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is stepping down this spring.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the energy panel, said Jewell's experience as a petroleum engineer, a corporate CEO, banker and conservationist should suit her well at Interior.
If confirmed, Jewell's biggest challenge "will be striking the right balance between the secretary's dual roles of both conserving and developing our resources," Wyden said. "We want to have jobs and protect our scenic treasures, and obviously that can be easier said than done."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination unless the Obama administration agrees to a land exchange that would allow construction of a gravel road through a wildlife refuge to provide access to an all-weather airport for the remote community of King Cove, Alaska.
Murkowski told Jewell she hoped she would not have to deal with the issue, and that Salazar will allow the land exchange before he leaves office.
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