Sally Jewell, President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Interior and former CEO of recreation equipment giant REI, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today during her confirmation hearing that balance is a critical component of managing our nation’s public lands and waters. She noted that the billions of dollars Americans spend on outdoor recreation:
…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.
Just last month, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt urged the Obama administration to put land conservation and energy development on “equal ground” by protecting one acre of public land for every one leased to the oil and gas industry. To date, the Obama administration has skewed heavily in favor of the oil and gas industry, leasing 2.5 acres of public lands for drilling for every one permanently protected.
Jewell also deftly sidestepped potential controversies over public lands management. Pressed to defend her previous support for a price on carbon, for example, she stated the Obama administration has “no proposals on the table around this issue.” Nevertheless, she also promised to tap the “vast” experience and skills of the department to help the U.S. better understand and prepare for the impacts of climate change, which will include worsening storms, droughts, sea level rise and ocean acidification associated with greenhouse gas emissions.
She made a point of using her experience as a petroleum engineer with Mobil Oil Corporation to blunt Republican criticism of Obama administration energy policies. Pushed by Republicans on their claims that the administration has stymied oil and gas production on federal lands, she said that while development on public lands is important, there are “complexities” in the market that have driven “production on private lands to the forefront.” That was a recognition that the shale formations underpinning recent oil and gas booms mostly exist under nonfederal lands, as a new study shows.
After summarizing her career, including 19 years as a banker and CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asked Jewell: “How’d you get appointed by this administration? It sounds like someone a Republican president would appoint.”
Jewell said she strongly supports the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy for public lands and the Outer Continental Shelf. But she also said conservation is a fundamental task of the department, which oversees some hundreds of millions of acres of “our parks, forests, deserts, rivers and seashores”– America’s “crown jewels,” as she put it.
She called the 1906 Antiquities Act, used by 16 different presidents to create national monuments, “a very important avenue” to expand conservation lands. And she called the Land and Water Conservation Fund that funnels federal dollars to land acquisition efforts across the U.S. “a brilliant piece of legislation” that has been “critical in every county across the country.”
There are a number of controversial issues that Jewell will be responsible for determining over the next few years. For example, while Shell has temporarily suspended its oil exploration efforts in the Arctic after being overwhelmed by mishaps and safety equipment failures, it and other oil companies are planning offshore drilling in the Arctic in 2014. Jewell will have to determine whether the basic scientific understanding and oil spill response capacity exist to ensure Arctic Ocean drilling can occur safely. Many signs indicate that they do not.
Meanwhile, off America’s eastern seaboard, Jewell will oversee the launch of an American offshore wind energy industry, which promises immense economic benefits and will be a vital component to further reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. While she professed her support of offshore wind at today’s hearing, real advancement of the industry will require her leadership to further streamline the permitting process through the “Smart from the Start” program begun by outgoing Secretary Salazar.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow for the Public Lands Team and Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate for the Ocean Program at Center for American Progress Action Fund.