By Ben Geman - 02/06/13 07:44 PM EST
President Obama on Wednesday announced he is nominating Sally Jewell, the CEO of outdoor gear giant REI, to succeed outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
“I am extraordinarily proud to nominate another strong and capable leader to take the reins at Interior,” Obama said when introducing Jewell at the White House Wednesday afternoon.
“Sally has helped turn a stalling outdoor retailer into one of America’s most successful and environmentally conscious companies,” Obama said.
The president called for a quick Senate confirmation of Jewell, who is the first female Cabinet nominee of his second term. Obama has taken heat from the left for not nominating more women and minorities, though officials have said the Cabinet will become more diverse as it is filled out.
“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” he said. “She knows that there is no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress, that in fact those two things need to go hand in hand.”
Jewell spent two decades working in the banking industry before becoming REI’s CEO in 2005. She began her career as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp., before Mobil merged with Exxon.
She also has environmental bona fides as a founding member of the board of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. She has advocated for land conservation policies in Washington state, where she lives, and nationally.
Although Jewell has ties with the Democratic Party, in 2008 she appeared with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his presidential run. McCain praised Jewell's work on the environment at the event.
The Interior Department carries out big portions of U.S. energy policy. The department regulates energy development on federal lands and waters, and Republicans and petroleum industry groups say the administration has placed too many restrictions on oil-and-gas drilling.
Jewell, at the White House, said she looked forward to working with the Interior employees who “work so hard to care for our land and our resources every day.”
She then addressed Salazar, who introduced her after Obama’s remarks.
“I am going to do my best to fill those big boots of yours, but I think I might get lost your hat,” she joked, referring to Salazar’s ever-present, 10-gallon hat.
White House press secretary Jay Carney talked up Jewell's private-sector credentials at a briefing earlier Wednesday.
“You know, she's uniquely qualified for that job. With years of experience managing a nearly $2 billion a year company, she will bring to the position integrity, team management skills, as well as dedication to the department's mission of managing our nation's lands. Trained as an engineer, Jewell has broad private-sector experience in energy and finance, as well as a commitment to conservation,” Carney told reporters.
At least some oil industry officials also appeared pleased with her industry background and overall private sector pedigree.
“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,” said Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
But another oil industry lobbyist, National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi, was more wary.
“The nomination of Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior is bit of a surprise and will likely be met with a cautious wait-and-see approach by the offshore energy industry,” he said.
The selection of Jewell has drawn praise from environmental groups; her conservation work includes membership on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association and other efforts.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will vet Jewell, reserved judgment Wednesday. She has been among the many Republicans critical of Interior under Salazar.
“The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity. 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,” Murkowski said in a statement.
The Interior nomination is part of a wider overhaul of the administration’s energy and environment team. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson have both announced they’re leaving, but Obama has not announced nominees to replace them.
Jewell, if confirmed, would inherit a number of thorny policy battles, including the rules that Interior is crafting to regulate hydraulic fracturing – the controversial oil-and-gas development method – on federal lands.
But many of the high-profile second-term energy and environmental decisions rest with other agencies.
EPA is under pressure from environmentalists and some Democrats to impose carbon standards on existing power plants, while the State Department is leading review of proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
— This story was last updated at 4:00 p.m.