Sally Jewell on Thursday breezed through a committee vote to lead the Interior Department but the agency’s proposal to list the sage grouse as an endangered species threatens to block her nomination from reaching the full Senate.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 19 to 3 to approve her confirmation that now must go to the Senate floor for the final vote when lawmakers return from the Easter recess. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is the only Colorado lawmaker on the panel, and voted in favor of Jewell’s confirmation.
Democrats and some Republicans said they supported Jewell, who served as president and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), because of her stated ability to bring together opposite sides of the environmental spectrum to find land-use solutions.
Jewell’s experience as a petroleum engineer and her knowledge of the fracking process to obtain natural gas also carried weight with the panel.
But some Republican lawmakers were not satisfied with Jewell’s responses to written and oral questions about her past association with the National Park Association’s lawsuits against the government and future plans to list the sage grouse as an endangered species.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) threatened to put a hold on Jewell’s nomination before it goes to a floor vote unless the agency commits to using science, instead of the fear of a lawsuit, in making a final determination on the sage grouse listing.
“Those who are anxious to get grazing off of public land have used the sage grouse as a tool and a vehicle to do that,” Risch said. “Indeed, some have said they will make the sage grouse the spotted owl of the range.”
“It’s really unfortunate that it takes a nomination like this in this type of a process in order to get urgency out of a federal agency. As we all know, urgency is not the hallmark of the federal government,” Risch said.
The proposal to list the grouse as endangered is part of a lawsuit settlement the Obama administration struck with environmental groups.
Western lawmakers are warning that the action would have devastating effects, particularly in Colorado where millions of acres would be blocked from producing oil, gas and for other uses.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said the Interior Department and local officials need to sit back down at the negotiating table to find a compromise “before a bird like that gets listed.”
The three Republicans voting against Jewell were Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Lee of Utah and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Barrasso said many of Jewell’s written and oral answers to the committee on numerous contentious issues facing her agency were incomplete, and that he was troubled by her lack of transparency in regards to her previous leadership as vice chairman of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
The NPCA wants aggressive regulations that threaten American jobs and new rules on fracking and mining that will make it harder for the U.S. to increase its energy supply, Barrasso said.
“She testified that as vice chairman she was unaware of the organization’s various positions and was unable to say what positions she disagrees with. That concerns me,” Barrasso said.
“She’s been nominated to a job that’s been critically important to our western states. Decisions she will make as head of the Department of Interior will have far reaching and lasting impacts on jobs, local and state economies, and on the future management of public land,” Barrasso said.
The environmental group has filed several lawsuits against the federal government to block natural resources development on public lands and some recreation in national parks.
During her confirmation hearing earlier this month Jewell declined to recuse herself from making decisions as a result of the lawsuits that number nearly 60 to ban weapons, snowmobiles, and off-road vehicles in national parks.
Barrasso said the litigation threatens to shut down oil, gas, coal and uranium production and put thousands of Americans out of work.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) threatened to hold up Jewell’s nomination before the committee vote because of the agency’s refusal to allow construction of a gravel road linking a remote Aleutians borough with a life-saving facility 20 miles away.
Human health is being ignored in order to protect wilderness flyover country for certain birds, Murkowski said.
However, Murkowski agreed to support Jewell after a late night conference call with current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar resulted in an agreement to revisit the Alaska road issue.