SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell said she would embrace a balanced approach to energy development on the nation's public lands, assuring Western states' senators that oil and gas will be a part of the mix.
In the Thursday confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, D.C., Jewell said industry deserves "certainty and stability" in rules that govern natural resource extraction and promised to expedite the federal permitting process for new development.
"Businesses need certainty," she said. "They don't mind playing by the rules, but they need to know what the rules are."
The Washington state resident and president of the colossal recreation company REI was questioned for nearly three hours by the Senate panel on her views related to public land issues.
Jewell, a former petroleum engineer, told committee members she had "fracked" a natural gas well during her work in the field and committed that the federal government would be open to a "states' first" approach on rules governing hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas from the ground.
When pressed by a senator if she would move the country away from fossil fuel development and to renewables and sustainable energy, Jewell simply said she favored an "all of the above" strategy promoted by President Barack Obama.
She also assured Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that she and the Obama administration would not pursue new monument designations without local input — something that has stung particularly in Utah with the 1996 creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument by then-President Bill Clinton.
"We will get multiple stakeholders around the table to discuss the monument designation question," should that become an issue in a particular state, she said.
It was plain the senators peppering Jewell with questions all have had pressing issues in their home states stemming from the management practices at the U.S. Department of the Interior — and few of them good.
"Eighty–seven percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada. "When the Interior sneezes, we feel an earthquake in Nevada."
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said the agency has fallen flat in its efforts to help Western states solve the management and conservation challenges posed by the greater sage grouse, which the federal government said warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Idaho, like Utah and other Western states, has been working to put in conservation measures to protect the bird to preclude such a listing.
"(Interior Secretary Ken Salazar) promised the Western governors that if they got together and came up with individual management plans, the Bureau of Land Management would carve those states out of the national management plan," Risch said. "The states want to do this. … It may come as a shock to the federal government, but we an do this."
Lee also asked Jewell, if she secures the nomination, to be mindful of the devastating consequences to San Juan County of a new proposal to set aside critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse.
"Ninety percent of the land is owned by the federal government," he said. "When you add on top of that the federal restrictions imposed by an ESA-proposed listing of the Gunnison sage grouse, that has a huge, huge impact on these local residents. Please be sensitive to these local communities."
Jewell was grilled by several of the committee members, particularly Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, for her affiliation with the National Parks Conservation Association as a member of its board.
Barrasso said the group has sued the federal government 59 times and "uses taxpayer dollars to fund lawsuits that put people out of work."
The senator wanted to know if Jewell would recuse herself from agency decisions that involve lawsuits or settlements with the NPCA.
Jewell stressed that she serves as one of 30 board members and has nothing to do with the group's litigation strategy, and said she will, if confirmed as Interior secretary, consult with "ethics professionals" on any issues related to NPCA.
Throughout the hearing, Jewell was praised by several committees for her blended background in the oil industry and her work as a conservationist, with some expressing hope that she will use her experiences as a corporate chief executive officer to inject more efficiency and expediency into the federal agency's operations.
She didn't flinch, too, when she was asked point blank her view on the politically charged topic of global warming.
"The scientific evidence is clear. There is no question in my mind it is real, and the scientific evidence is there to back it up," Jewell said.
Early in the hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, warned Jewell that she would have to convince the committee that she would maintain "balance" in the use of public lands should she become the next Interior secretary.
"We all have our own King Cove, and we all have our own examples of how misguided federal restrictions are making it harder for people to live, be safe and prosper," Murkowski said, referencing a federal decision to disapprove the construction of a 10-mile road to a rural Alaskan airport for emergency medical evacuations. "(The agency) too often ignores its mission to honor multiple uses of public lands. … We need you to affirm that public lands are not just playgrounds."
Jewell said having a balanced approach is key to managing public lands.
"I don't think it is an ‘either or.' I really think it is an ‘and.' I have had that kind of balanced perspective in my career and would bring it to the role," she said.
After the hearing, Lee said he appreciated Jewell's responses to his questions.
"Land management issues are critical to Utah's economy," he said. "I want to ensure we have a willing partner at Interior who will work with us and sees Utah's interests as also being in the national interest."
The committee did not take a vote Thursday on Jewell's nomination. It will review her testimony and response to written questions before making a decision, which will likely happen this month, before Salazar steps down.
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