News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

REI Exec Sally Jewell Confirmed as Interior Secretary

Newly confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center, with President Barack Obama and the back of Ken Salazar's head | Photo: White House

Sally Jewell, the CEO of Washington-based retailer REI (it formerly stands for Recreational Equipment, Inc), will be the next Secretary of the Interior, replacing former Senator Ken Salazar. The U.S. Senate voted 87-11 to confirm Jewell on Wednesday, and she's likely to be sworn in before the week is out.

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Jewell will inherit an Interior Department with a much sharper focus on aggressive energy development than the one Salazar took on; during his tenure, the departing Secretary essentially remade the department as an energy exploitation agency. Salazar pioneered the first ever departmental level programmatic policy for development of utility-scale solar generating stations on public lands, presided over a radical expansion of wind turbine permitting on those same lands, and much-expending permitting of oil and gas drilling.

Mere hours before Jewell's Senate confirmation, the White House released its proposed Interior Department budget for Fiscal Year 2014. The $11.9 billion budget request is essentially flat compared to the $11.5 billion the White House requested for Interior in 2012 and 2013, though it's a substantial cut from 2010's $20 billion budget. Despite the lack of overall increase in the budget, the Department's budget for energy exploration and development would rise sharply to $771.6 million, up nearly $100 million from 2012. According to a Department press release issued Wednesday morning, much of that increase would focus on renewable energy development:

[T]he 2014 budget includes $29.1 million for onshore renewable energy programs administered by the BLM and $34.4 for offshore renewable development managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Another $36.4 million in four other Interior agencies will be used for their renewable energy programs. Since 2009, Interior has approved 37 onshore renewable energy projects on or affecting public lands, including 20 utility-scale solar facilities, eight wind farms and nine geothermal plants, with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure to connect to established power grids. ... Offshore, Interior has created the nation's first regulatory system for permitting renewable energy on the Outer Continental Shelf, issued two non-competitive commercial wind leases off the Atlantic coast and is preparing the first-ever competitive lease sales for wind energy areas off Virginia and Rhode Island. These auctions are expected to offer 278,000 acres for development....

Salazar was widely rumored to have ordered subsidiary agencies not to dissent from his overarching goal of maximizing renewable energy development on public lands, with the result that gigantic industrial facilities such as BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and FirstSolar's Desert Sunlight project were approved on the doorsteps of National Park holdings with nary a peep of protest from frustrated Park Service staffers. Whether Jewell will allow land managers to offer their professional opinions on proposed permanent alterations of our public lands remains to be seen.

Of course, renewable energy isn't the only kind of energy development being ramped up at Interior. As Wednesday's budget press release notes, the sharp increase in fossil fuel exploitation will also continue in FY 2014:

The budget proposes discretionary funding of $17.9 million to strengthen the Bureau of Land Management's onshore oil and gas program, an increase of $22.2 million in program capacity. The budget continues support for leasing reform and strengthened inspections and oversight. The BLM's 31 onshore lease sales in calendar year 2012 resulted in 1,707 parcels receiving bids, 30 percent more than in 2009, and generating $233 million for taxpayers. Leasing reforms launched in 2010 have resulted in fewer protests, reducing costs and speeding development. Less than 18 percent of 2,064 parcels offered in FY12 were protested, as compared to almost 50 percent in 2008.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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