WASHINGTON -- Recreational Equipment Inc. chief Sally Jewell worked Thursday to convince Republican senators rattled by her leadership in conservation groups that she supports fossil fuel development and should be approved as interior secretary.
"Many people, as they enjoy the outdoors, jump in a car to get there," the leader of outdoor equipment and clothing retailer REI said at her confirmation hearing.
Jewell told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that she supports careful exploration for oil in the Arctic waters off Alaska. She also tried to assuage concerns of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the committee, by saying that she worked on elements of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline as an engineer in the 1970s.
President Barack Obama last month nominated Jewell to replace the departing Ken Salazar as interior secretary. It's a job that involves overseeing 500 million acres of public lands and has vast responsibilities including oil and gas development, endangered species, national parks and Alaska Native and Native American affairs. The interior secretary is especially influential in Alaska, as federal land makes up more than 60 percent of the state.
Murkowski was among the Republicans to bring up Jewell's involvement in conservation groups.
"What comfort or assurance can you give me for the people in the state of Alaska that you are focused on the resource side of the agenda?" Murkowski asked Jewell.
Jewell tried throughout the hearing to strike a middle ground. She spoke repeatedly of her desire to balance development and conservation and embrace an "all of the above" energy strategy that includes oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power and renewables. Jewell said existence of climate change is not in debate.
"There is no question in my mind it is real and that the scientific evidence backs it up," Jewell said.
But she also emphasized her resource development bona fides: Jewell has a mechanical engineering degree and worked for Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil, in Oklahoma and Colorado for four years after college. She said her time as a petroleum engineer involved working on the Alaska pipeline and fracking a well.
She left Mobil Oil in 1981 and spent the next 19 years in commercial banking in the Seattle area. Jewell said among her clients was NANA, the regional corporation representing Natives of Northwest Alaska. She left banking in 2000 to become an executive at REI, headquartered in Kent, Wash.
Murkowski is threatening to hold up Jewell's confirmation because the Obama administration is opposing a road through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge. She wants a land exchange so the road can be constructed giving the community of King Cove access to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay for emergencies.
Murkowski reiterated her support for the road Thursday but didn't press Jewell on the issue. She said it's a matter Salazar should take care of before he leaves.
Jewell assured Murkowski she would work with her on cleaning up abandoned wells the federal government drilled decades ago in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Jewell also said she would get involved in talks to give states like Alaska a share of the federal money from drilling off their coasts.
Jewell's history of advocacy, particularly as board member and vice chairwoman of the National Parks Conservation Association, came up repeatedly at the hearing.
Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said the parks association has threatened jobs by filing lawsuits over coal-fired power plants and other issues.
Barrasso asked Jewell to agree to recuse herself from any issue the group is involved with. Jewell responded that she is just one of roughly 30 NPCA board members and has no role in the lawsuits. Jewell said she would consult Interior Department ethics officials on any potential conflict of interest issues.
Senators also pressed Jewell on whether she supports the idea of a carbon tax, sometimes touted as a way to raise revenue and address climate change.
Jewell wouldn't answer, saying the president has made clear he won't be proposing a carbon tax. It's not an issue that will come before her as interior secretary.
Jewell presented herself at the hearing as cautiously pro-development and did not draw any major differences with her predecessor, Salazar. She said she supports efforts to find out how much oil could be in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, with the possibility of allowing Atlantic offshore drilling down the road.
She said she will work with states and the petroleum industry on rules for the controversial process of fracking that protect the environment but still allow drilling.
A vote on Jewell's confirmation hasn't been scheduled. But Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat., lauded Jewell on Thursday and said her blend of business and conservation experience is impressive. Other Democrats also praised the nominee. Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said Jewell has navigated the business world while keeping REI's commitment to the outdoors.
"She's the right person at the right time to be secretary of interior," Murray said.
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