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REI boss Jewell is surprising Obama pick for Interior secretary

Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) CEO Sally Jewell on March 22, 2006 outside of REI's Seattle flagship store.
Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) CEO Sally Jewell stands in front of a wall of backpacks on March 22, 2006, at REI's Seattle flagship store.

In a break with tradition, President Barack Obama is looking to the business world -- instead of the pool of lawmakers from Western states -- to find a chief for the nation's Interior Department.

Obama is set to tap Sally Jewell, the CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., to succeed Ken Salazar as Interior Secretary on Wednesday afternoon, according to administration officials.

Jewell's business background extends beyond her eight-year tenure heading REI, the chain of more than 100 recreational and outdoor equipment stores. The Washington state native previously worked three years as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. in Oklahoma and Colorado and later spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry, including a stint as an energy analyst.

The choice of Jewell appeared to surprise official Washington D.C., which had been whispering about possible replacements among former lawmakers and governors of Western states. That is a common path to Interior, because of the abundance of federal lands in that part of the country. Oil and gas industry leaders had suggested Western candidates with governing experience and have deep understanding of the mixed use of those lands, including the need to balance energy development with other activities.

Jim Noe, an executive with Hercules Offshore and the head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, said he was "encouraged" by Jewell's selection because she is "a woman with experience in the energy industry as a petroleum engineer and who, as a CEO, knows what it means to run a business and answer to its stakeholders."

"Ms. Jewell's resume suggests that she may be well-suited to improving the efficiency of our nation's energy regulatory regime while ensuring the continued practice of safe and environmentally conscious energy production," Noe added.

Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said he expected Jewell's "experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader" would allow her to "bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation's energy portfolio."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, stopped short of an endorsement, noting only that "the livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity."

Conservationists were cheered by Jewell's long background supporting the national parks and recreation on public lands.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, noted that Jewell "has a unique appreciation for public lands and has been nationally recognized for her conservation efforts," making her "the right choice to promote conservation and protect America's national treasures."

Jewell's conservation cred comes from her service as a member of the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which works to support and restore the park system. And Jewell's leadership of the REI co-operative is no accident, a natural outgrowth of her passion for the outdoors, including camping, hiking and skiing.

She also has worked to support the Obama administration's America's Great Outdoors Program. In 2011, she introduced Obama at a White House conference on the initiative, noting the economic benefits of robust outdoor recreation in the United States.

Jewell becomes the first woman named to Obama's second-term cabinet, which is seeing the departures of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A Seattle Times profile in 2005 described her as an intelligent, thoughtful and no-nonsense leader.

Salazar announced his resignation in January, saying he would return to his wife and family in Colorado.

His four-year tenure at the head of Interior has been stormy, marked by some bitter, high-profile battles with oil and gas industry leaders upset with his approach to energy development on public lands and waters.

Salazar presided over the reorganization of government agencies that police offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He drew fire for his decision to impose a five-month ban on most deep-water exploration in the wake of the Gulf spill.



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