WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sally Jewell, a retail executive and outdoor enthusiast, is President Barack Obama’s pick to oversee the national parks and vast energy reserves on public lands as U.S. interior secretary.
Obama nominated Jewell, chief executive of outdoor retailer REI, on Wednesday, calling her an “expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future” as well as a savvy executive who understands the link between conservation and economic progress.
Jewell is the first woman chosen to join Obama’s second-term Cabinet, which has been criticized as lacking diversity.
“I am humbled and I‘m energized by this opportunity,” Jewell said in a brief White House ceremony, where she was introduced by outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Her background, which includes a stint as an oil company engineer, won praise from conservationists and some industry groups, but Jewell’s nomination drew skepticism from some Republicans.
“I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department,” said U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Murkowski has criticized the department, including its decision in December to open about half the vast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s North Slope to drilling, which she said was not enough.
David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he wanted to learn Jewell’s views on the administration’s five-year offshore oil leasing plan, which he has argued should allow for expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jewell, 56, has been a leader in land conservation in the Pacific Northwest, but she worked in the energy and banking sectors earlier in her career.
Besides managing the U.S. National Park Service, the Interior Department oversees about a fifth of the nation’s land mass and vast offshore oil fields.
Interior has a strong say in rules that govern hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands as well as drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. It will help implement the president’s push for more renewable energy development on federal land.
Jewell joined Recreational Equipment Inc as a board member in 1996 before taking over as chief operating officer in 2000 and then later as CEO of the national retail chain.
A graduate of the University of Washington, where she now serves as a regent, Jewell began her career as an engineer at Mobil Oil Corp, working in Oklahoma and Colorado.
At Washington’s Rainier National Bank in the early 1980s, she gained a reputation for rejecting risky loans to the oil and gas sector, inoculating the bank from a string of failures when the Oklahoma and Texas oil boom went bust.
“Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio,” the Western Energy Alliance said in a statement.
Jewell’s recognition from many environmental groups, and the reputation of Washington state-based REI for conservation and environmental stewardship efforts, seemed certain to draw attention.
“We’re not going to get excited that she’s suddenly going to change course from the current anti-energy policies of the Obama administration,” said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
But the group said Jewell did not seem to be a “lock it up and throw away the key preservationist,” and Ebell said CEI did not plan to oppose her nomination.
Jewell is an outdoorswoman who lists snowboarding and kayaking among her hobbies and has climbed Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest mountain. She served on the “National Parks Second Century Commission,” whose goal was to help shape the future of the National Parks System.
“In Jewell, President Obama chose a leader with a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans - recreation, adventure, and enjoyment,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of many environmental groups praising the choice.
About 30 percent of U.S. oil and gas production and 40 percent of the nation’s coal come from land managed by Interior, according to the agency’s website. The department collected roughly $12 billion in revenue from federal land last year.
Interior has come under scrutiny in recent years for giving industry undue sway in awarding contracts and collecting too little royalty revenue.
Last month, the Senate energy committee asked the department to investigate whether mining companies were shortchanging the government on coal export royalties.
Obama is remaking his energy and environmental team at a time when the nation is responding to a surge in shale oil and gas development that has transformed the U.S. energy outlook.
The president has said he hopes to reduce the country’s reliance on carbon fuels blamed for climate change.
Jewell has received several awards for her work in environmental conservation. As a leader with the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, an initiative to create a green corridor around the Puget Sound to inland Washington State, Jewell has worked with government and private interests to protect land for conservation and recreational use.
The president has yet to name replacements for Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Steven Chu, the Energy Secretary, both of whom have announced their departures.
Jewell’s Senate confirmation hearings have not been scheduled.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Patrick Rucker, Valerie Volcovici, Timothy Gardner and Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Doina Chiacu