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REI Exec Tapped For Interior: What Does it Mean for Energy Policy on Public Lands?

REI Chief Executive Officer Sally Jewell delivers remarks after being nominated by President Barack Obama to be the next Secretary of the Interior in the State. | Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Speculation over Ken Salazar's successor as Interior Secretary came to a head today: the White House has selected Sally Jewell, CEO of the Lakewood, Washington-based outdoor company REI, as its nominee for the slot. Jewell is a bit of a dark horse, with far more of a track record in managing businesses than in setting policy. If the Senate confirms her for the slot, what will that mean for energy policy on public lands?

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Jewell, who has helmed REI since 2005, showed in this 2007 interview in Grist that she's definitely got the interests of wilderness recreationists at heart -- a marked shift from her predecessor, who often seemed to be paying lip service to the hiking and camping constituencies out of political expediency.

But if she's confirmed by the Senate, will Jewell's fleece-clad bonafides make a difference in Interior energy development policy?

That's hard to say. Jewell started out her career in the late 1970s as a petroleum engineer, first for Mobil Oil and then as a consulting engineer for Rainier Bank, who sought her help in planning the bank's oil investments. That experience in the oil industry led Tim Wigley, president of the oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance, to say that Jewell's "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."

Not that the entire oil community is on board: Politico reports that Utah representative Rob Bishop, best known for his plan to suspend all federal environmental law within 100 miles of the border, is lambasting Jewell over REI's support of what he calls "radical environmental groups," such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. (The "radical" SUWA recently gave its approval to a plan to drill almost 1,500 gas wells in Utah's Uintah County, which gives an indication of Bishop's political position.) If views like Bishop's make their way into the Senate, Jewell may have a slightly bumpy ride through the confirmation process.

Nonetheless, the measured tone of the endorsements -- with both the Sierra Club and Western Energy Alliance piping up in support of the nomination -- makes it hard to gauge whether Jewell would make much change in Salazar-era energy policies on public lands, whether renewable or fossil fueled. Activists hoping for a shift from utility-scale renewables on desert wildlands to a more balanced approach incorporating disturbed lands and urban development might find hope in Jewell's outdoorsy predilections. Then again, the phenomenon of enviros from greener parts of the West failing to value arid lands is far from unusual.

Perhaps the biggest clue came in President Obama's speech in which he announced Jewell's nomination: He commended her for recognizing that protecting the environment can't work without economic growth. That's not actually true, of course, but it's an article of faith within the Obama administration, and one for which the administration has taken some recent heat.

But it seems likely that unless Jewell strays significantly from White House talking points -- which, given her lack of a political base, she's unlikely to do, at least at first -- her tenure at Interior will probably be more of the same we've seen under Salazar.

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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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