REI Chief Picked To Head Interior Department

If President Obama has his way, leadership of the U.S. Department of the Interior – a key post in overseeing large-scale renewable energy development – will go to Sally Jewell, the chief executive of the outdoors company REI.

Early reaction to the news from the environmental community was positive. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke said Jewell “has the mind of an engineer, the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman,” and Mike Daulton of the National Audubon Society called her “a dedicated conservationist and a strong leader who understands that protecting our natural world goes hand in hand with a strong American economy.”

Under Ken Salazar, the Interior Department aggressively pursued renewable energy development, like the Ivanpah solar power plant shown here, on public lands. (image via BrightSource Energy)

Under Ken Salazar, the Interior Department aggressively pursued renewable energy development, like the Ivanpah solar power plant shown here, on public lands. (image via BrightSource Energy)

The Jewell news was broken Wednesday morning by the Washington Post and was followed by a presidential announcement in the afternoon.

Like the outgoing DOI chief, Coloradan Ken Salazar, Jewell is a Westerner, but unlike Salazar she has no background in politics. She grew up in the Seattle area and graduated from the University of Washington, where she is now on the Board of Regents. Her UW bio notes that she “began her professional career as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corporation in Oklahoma and Colorado,” before going on to spend 19 years in the commercial banking industry. She came to REI in 2005.

The Mobil connection might give some renewable energy advocates pause. But that was a relatively brief three-year period in her long career, right out of college, and she brings excellent conservationist credentials to the job, as might be expected of an REI executive. From her bio: “Sally has received numerous awards for her community service, including the 2009 Rachel Carson Award for Environmental Conservation from the Audubon Society; the 2008 Non-Profit Director of the Year award from the National Association of Corporate Directors, and The Green Globe – Environmental Catalyst Award from King County, Washington, among others.”

Jewell would take over an Obama Interior Department that has been steering a tenuous “all of the above” energy strategy on public lands, approving unprecedented renewable energy projects while also boasting of increased natural gas and oil extraction. As the Post noted in its story Wednesday morning, many conservationists who are generally in the administration’s camp would like to see that course steered less toward extraction and more toward conservation. The Post pointed to a speech delivered on Tuesday [PDF] by Bruce Babbitt, who led Interior during the Clinton administration. A telling passage:

“The pace of oil and gas leasing on public lands has continued at a high rate. Just over the past four years, the Obama Administration has leased more than 6 million acres of public lands for oil and gas development.

Designating public lands for energy production – oil and gas and renewable – is of course an appropriate resource use. Yet, as we hear more and more strident demands for accelerated leasing and increased production, we should pause to ask:

“What about conservation?”

“Where is the balance?”

Babbitt went on to propose “a common-sense principle: for every acre of land leased to the oil and gas industry during his tenure, one acre must be permanently protected for future generations. It’s that simple: one to one.”

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.