Obama Taps REI Chief for Interior Secretary

At the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated REI CEO Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior.

Jewell, who took over REI in 2005, has a record both as a successful businesswoman and a longtime conservation advocate. REI, which was founded in 1938, grew rapidly under Jewell’s tenure, and the company today operates over 100 stores in around 30 states.

Jewell’s resume, which includes a stint for the Mobil oil company as well as 20 years in the banking sector, belies simple categorization as a environmentalist. Still, Jewell’s record at REI suggests that she will add another environmentally conscientious voice to the group of advisors on which the president will rely when crafting U.S. energy policy during his second term.

Jewell has received a slew of accolades for her environmental leadership, including the 2009 Rachel Carson Award for environmental conservation from the Audubon Society and the 2009 Green Globe – Environmental Catalyst Award from King County, Wash., among others.

In 2010, Jewell was invited to speak on a panel at the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors. At the time, the CEO applauded the Obama administration and the Department of the Interior “for taking a ‘listen and learn’ approach on how to remove barriers and identify solutions for enriching our public land legacy.”

Jewell likely faces harsh questioning during her confirmation hearings, especially from Congressional Republicans who have been openly hostile to efforts to mitigate climate change and have urged the administration to ease restrictions for oil and gas companies seeking to lease public lands. But Jewell’s experience as a CEO and her time spent at Mobil may help allay Republican fears that Jewell will be hostile to business, significantly increasing her chances of passing muster at confirmation hearings.

Assuming she can get through confirmation, President Obama will have himself an Interior Secretary who has been warmly embraced by several prominent leaders in the environmental movement.

Frances Beinecke, who as President of the Natural Resources Defense Council is one of the most important environmental voices in the United States, lauded Obama’s pick. “Jewell’s unique experience and her love of America’s outdoors will be invaluable to the stewardship of the waters, lands and wildlife we’ve been entrusted to protect for our children,” she said.

Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen echoed this sentiment, saying, “We are pleased with the administration’s pick and look forward to working with Sally Jewell. Her professional and personal commitment to conservation will be invaluable to running DOI.”

Jewell’s nomination is just the latest in a series of moves the President has made that signal his seriousness about tackling climate change. In his second inaugural address, Obama directly challenged climate deniers, unequivocally stating, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

In subsequent weeks, Obama has promoted or appointed a series of climate champions to key advisory roles, including Denis McDonough as White House Chief of Staff, John Kerry as Secretary of State, and either Bob Perciasepe or Gina McCarthy, one of whom is expected to replace outgoing administrator Lisa Jackson as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If confirmed, Jewell will have big shoes to fill in succeeding outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who announced on Jan. 16 that he would step down by the end of March. Salazar’s most significant contribution to long-term U.S. energy strategy was his plan to set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of Western land for the future development of solar and wind power.

At the time of Salazar’s announcement, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said: “We look forward to building on his achievements with his successor, working to designate new national monuments and keeping dirty energy developers off our public lands and out of the Arctic.”

[Image credit: Fortune Live Media, Flickr]

Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

2 responses

  1. Another sign for me that Obama doesn’t take environmental issues seriously. And ex-banker/CEO to run Interior, instead of a natural resource professional who actually knows something about the environment? Lame. Another chunk of government handed over to the Corporations.

    1. I dunno. I think REI is a good example of a company that has figured out the value in preserving our natural resources (land, mainly). Granted, most of their locations are in horrible strip malls.

      There will be no progress without the help of business. Business is not the enemy, it is part of the solution.

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