WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell on Thursday declined to recuse herself from decisions on restricting public land use or shutting down energy development — actions that are the goal of numerous lawsuits against the government from an environmental group on which she served as vice-chairman.
Nearly 60 lawsuits filed by the contentious National Park Conservation Association have sought to ban weapons, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles in national parks that Jewell would be in charge of managing if she is confirmed by the Senate.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) lead the tough questioning on the lawsuits during Jewell’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Barrasso said the litigation threatens to shut down oil, gas, coal and uranium production and put thousands of Americans out of work.
“You have a conflict of interest,” Barrasso said. “Many people believe you have a fundamental conflict overseeing any rulemaking.”
Jewell refused to remove herself from any rulemaking that evolves from the lawsuits, but said that she would “check with the ethics officials to determine the appropriate scope of my involvement.”
She also insisted that the lawsuits were the work of only one board member and claimed no responsibility for the costly litigation.
“I am one of 30 board members, I have nothing to do with their litigation strategy,” Jewell said.
The petroleum engineer was nominated by President Barack Obama in February to head the Interior Department following the announcement by Secretary Ken Salazar that he was stepping down from the post.
Most recently Jewell served as president and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). She is a popular choice among environmentalists and Democrats to lead the agency, which controls more than 500 million acres of public land, most of which is in the western U.S.
If confirmed, she will oversee a budget of more than $20 billion a year and manage more than 70,000 employees in the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of Surface Mining, and the Fish and Wildlife Services that has authority over the Endangered Species Act.
“With authorities ranging from managing national parks to offshore oil and gas development to protecting fish and wildlife, serving as secretary of Interior is almost like an extreme sport for multi-taskers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), committee chairman.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked for Jewell’s support in securing more taxpayer dollars for the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is set to expire in two years.
“I think it is a brilliant piece of legislation and I absolutely look forward to working along side you to support it in the future,” Jewell said.
Udall asked how she would balance backcountry use with hunters, anglers and bicyclists. The nominee said she would bring all of the users together to find common ground for shared use.
“I’ve been a convener of people with different interests to come up with appropriate use, balancing multiple uses, whether hunters, anglers, mountain bikers or oil and gas developers,” Jewell said. “It’s important you get the people to find common ground, to the extent there is common ground.”
Republicans reminded her that public lands might serve as a playground for recreationists, but it also provides paycheck for miners, loggers and ranchers.
Most of their questions focused on carbon taxes, cap and trade, grazing, water rights, increasing energy development on public lands, supporting multiple-use, fracking rules, and Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding.
She embraced those issues as “important,” but danced around specifics and failed to answer critical questions.
She refused to say whether she would support carbon taxes. “It’s not something that would come before me in the role of secretary.” She also avoided the topic of cap and trade, maintaining that it is not a policy the Obama administration is pursing.
While insisting she supports the principle of multiple-use, she backed away from the issue of grazing saying that specific circumstances should be handled on a case-by-case to determine the impact on the land. Specifically, the habitat of the sage grouse is being considered before grazing permits are approved in numerous western states.
“Grazing permit holders need certainty and clarity and they don’t have it,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
Jewell assured the panel that she supports alterative energy but suggested more studies need to be conducted to determine its impact on viewscapes.
Finally, Jewell was very enthusiastic in her viewpoint on global warming.
“I think the scientific evidence is clear,” Jewell said. “There is no question in my mind it is real and the scientific evidence is there to back that.”
“The president has made clear that climate change is an important issue for our nation, especially as we face more frequent and intense droughts, wildfires and floods. I commit to tapping into the vast scientific and land management resources at Interior — from USGS to the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Reclamation and beyond — to better understand and prepare for the challenges that our cities, coastlines, river basins and ultimately our economies face.”