WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the U.S. Interior Department, Sally Jewell, pledged on Thursday to give the oil and gas industry more “certainty” regarding development on public lands, as lawmakers questioned her commitment to balancing conservation with expanded energy production.
Jewell, testifying at a Senate hearing on her nomination, stressed the importance of both renewable energy and traditional fossil fuel development.
“We owe it to the American people to make sure that development takes place in a safe and responsible way,” she told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“We also need to provide industry with certainty and clarity when it comes to development, so that they can make smart investments to help power our economy,” Jewell added.
Jewell did not specify the steps she would take to create “certainty.” Lawmakers from energy-producing states have criticized the Interior Department, saying it is not doing enough to promote oil and gas development on public lands and that the government’s permitting process for drilling is too long and arduous.
In her prepared testimony Jewell, chief executive of outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI and a former banker, also highlighted the time she spent at the start of her career as a petroleum engineer with Mobil Oil.
Jewell was the first member named to Obama’s second-term energy and climate change team. This week Obama tapped air quality expert Gina McCarthy as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to lead the Department of Energy.
Questioned about the potential for permitting to be speeded up, Jewell promised to work at the department to make sure the process is “predictable, reasonable and reliable.”
The top Republican on the committee called on Jewell to balance “the various missions and interests” of the department, which has about 70,000 employees at some 2,400 locations around the country.
“We need you to affirm that public lands provide not just a playground for recreational enthusiasts, but also paychecks for countless energy producers, miners, loggers and ranchers,” said Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski has threatened to hold up Jewell’s nomination if Interior does not allow construction of an emergency road for a remote Alaskan community.
Interior is in the process of re-issuing draft rules governing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on government lands. Environmental groups and some neighbors of fracking operations want stricter oversight to prevent pollution of drinking water, but the energy industry has expressed concern that rules overlap state regulations and would unduly burden drillers.
In addition to overseeing energy development on public lands, the department also regulates offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic, among other responsibilities.
Royal Dutch Shell was forced to abandon plans to drilling in the Arctic this year after a series of high profile set backs in 2012. Interior is set to soon release a review of Shell’s drilling activities last year in the Arctic, an area that environmentalists have warned is too fragile for drilling.
“What I think is most important as we explore these resources - and I think it’s appropriate to explore them - is to do so in a safe and responsible way,” Jewell said, when asked about her views on Arctic oil development.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, pressed Jewell about her role on the board of trustees for the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent group that advocates on behalf of the national parks system.
Barrasso said Jewell had a “fundamental conflict of interest” because he said the association has ongoing lawsuits against the federal government over public lands issues and has come out in favor of expanded regulations on fracking.
Jewell defended her time at the association, where she has been a member of the board of trustees since 2004, saying she was one of thirty members and not involved in litigation.
Jewell said that if confirmed, she would consult with the government’s ethics officials before acting on any issues involving the association.
Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; editing by Ros Krasny, John Wallace and Phil Berlowitz