Sally Jewell is nominated to head the Department of the Interior on Wednesday afternoon by President Obama. (Getty Images)
President Obama nominated Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) CEO Sally Jewell to replace Ken Salazar as head of the Interior Department today, a decision that could change the landscape of Pennsylvania's federal lands. The Interior Department is in charge of handling the wildlife and forestry of the United States, a hotly debated topic thanks to the shale oil boom that has energy companies hoping to make large profits off oil and gas trapped thousands of feet beneath the federal land, and frustrated environmentalists who don’t want to see wells pop up on the acreage.
From the federal to the state level, the government has weighed the issue, trying to determine the rules that will govern drilling on federal and private land – a decision that will be informed by the Department of Interior. So far, Pennsylvania and the Marcellus Shale that sits underneath the Keystone State have been at the center of the argument. Under the leadership of Jewell, who brings a background in business and a documented passion for conservation, the fate of thousands of acres of land could be decided.
A Washington state native, Jewell graduated from University of Washington in 1978 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Immediately following graduation, Jewell headed to the oil fields of southern Oklahoma (and later to Colorado) with her husband Warren Jewell, both accepting jobs with Mobil Oil. The Jewell’s stayed with the company for three years before Sally left Mobil for Rainer Bank in 1981, where she took the title of petroleum engineer and helped the bank make oil-related investments.
Though mechanical engineering had consumed her college years, Jewell chose to stick with business positions, spending the next 19 years in the banking industry. After working for Rainier Bank, Jewell was awarded a job with Security Pacific where she ran the company’s business-banking activities. In 1996, Jewell began a job overseeing Washington Mutual's commercial-banking business as the president of the commercial banking group, holding the post for four years.
"Banking gives you a glimpse into what makes companies succeed and what makes companies fail," Jewell told the Seattle Times in a 2005 article.
By 1996, Jewell was a board member for REI, and in four years was named Chief Operating Officer. In 2005, Jewell became President and CEO of REI, a company that holds the title of the nation’s largest consumer cooperative. Though the company recorded its first loss just five years earlier, Jewell soon had REI back on track. Soon, she helped REI achieve increased sustainability through reducing energy consumption.
Jewell’s involvement with the environment is not limited to her days as an engineer for Mobil or REI. She resides on the boards of non-profits such as Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, REI, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Initiative for Global Development, and is also an avid outdoors woman who has sailed across Puget Sound and spent three weeks hiking in Antarctica in 2011.
Unlike Mr. Salazar and other Interior Department heads before her, Jewell has never been involved in politics, carrying little experience in the nation’s capital. This could create a learning curve for Jewell, but also brings a different perspective to Washington D.C. through her passion for conservation which won her the 2009 Rachel Carson Award for environmental conservation from the Audubon Society.
Yet, hours after the announcement, Jewell already came under pressure to take a stance on the land grab led by the oil companies. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment,” said Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 400 energy companies, in a statement.
Jewell is also facing pressure from her peers, including Bruce Babbit, the Interior Department’s Secretary under former President Bill Clinton. “So far under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas,” Mr. Babbitt said in a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. “Over the past four years, the industry has leased more than 6 million acres, compared with only 2.6 million acres permanently protected.”
The debate over the economic pros and environmental cons of fracking will soon have a new voice to guide the department, and the Sierra Club – a prominent environmental group – has released a statement supporting President Obama’s decision. “Sally Jewell has demonstrated that she knows just how important our wild places are to our national legacy and our economy,” said
Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams also issued a statement, saying, “Sally Jewell is an outstanding choice to serve as the next Secretary of the Interior. She has been a tremendous leader for conservation at every level, from her support for the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors program to her work on the Mountains to Sound Greenway in Washington State.”
The move has also earned praise from those who criticized President Obama for having a predominantly male cabinet. Many key positions remain open, including two energy-related appointments. The positions of Energy Secretary (previously held by Stephen Chu) and EPA Administrator (formerly held by Lisa Jackson) have yet to be chosen.