Sally Jewell Confirmed to Head DOI: Be Careful What You Wish For

Senate confirms REI CEO Sally Jewell as Interior SecretaryThe silence was apparently deafening at yesterday’s Senate hearing, which culminated in the confirmation of Sally Jewell, head of the legendary outfitting company Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), as President Obama’s new Secretary of the Interior. In stark contrast to the reception typically received from Senate Republicans by other candidates put forth for various positions in the Obama Administration, Jewell sailed through the hearing with nary a word spoken in her disfavor, with only 11 senators voted against the confirmation.

Given Jewell’s leadership role in corporate climate action as head of REI, it seems that Republican senators would have been better served by blocking her nomination. Instead, the Sally Jewel confirmation resulted in a missed opportunity to block President Obama’s ability to act on his promise of gearing public policy toward addressing the challenges of global warming. The question is, why?

Sally Jewell confirmed: a no-brainer, right?

According to a report on the confirmation hearing by Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post,  it seems that Jewell perfectly fit the bill for a Cabinet post, at least by the standards of certain senators: no history of previous employment in government, a solid track record as a top executive of a leading company in its sector, and to top it off, a resume that includes experience in the petroleum industry and 20 years in the banking industry.

As related by Eilperin, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) initially held up the nomination pending an agreement by outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to commit the agency to hearing more evidence of the need for a new wilderness road serving a remote community. Eventually she voted in favor of Jewell, commenting on the nominee’s lack of government experience as “a good thing, because perhaps she is able to look through these issues with a fresh perspective, a different lens.”

That’s true as far as it goes. Back in February, when Jewell’s name was first floated for the post, Triple Pundit noted her transformational role as head of REI. The company was initially founded as a buying co-op in the 1930’s and is still owned by its members today, and Jewell has bucked the online retail trend by shepherding the company’s brick-and-mortar growth into more than 100 stores across the U.S.

That’s a canny move, in that it leverages REI’s stellar reputation among outdoor enthusiasts to provide both newbies and seasoned experts with a personal level of customer service that is difficult if not impossible to achieve through online sales. But, we digress. The main point is that some aspects of Jewell’s resume clearly indicate that she would be a friend of corporate interests in the retail and financial sectors, as well as the fossil fuel sector.

Be careful what you wish for…

But if you’re anticipating a fossil fuel free-for-all on public lands, guess again. The elements of Jewell’s resume that seem attractive to some legislators are only part of her story, as regular readers of Triple Pundit know well. We’ve been following REI’s progress under Jewell’s leadership, and from our point of view this successful CEO, who also happens to be a notable member of the outdoor recreation community, is just as clearly a friend of sustainable environmental policies as she is of bottom-line commercial success.

Going back to 2008, we noted REI’s plans to install solar power in its retail stores, and in 2010 we gave the company an A+ for corporate responsibility. Since then, REI has followed up with a slew of initiatives that have enabled it to increase sales, revenues, and bricks-and-mortar presence while managing its carbon footprint.

Jewell herself has been front and center as an outspoken advocate for corporate environmental stewardship, including an appearance at the 2011 Net Impact Conference that featured both the keynote speech and an onstage Q & A session in which she delved into supply chain responsibilities among other issues.

How we call it

If anything, Jewel strikes us as a pragmatic,  forward-thinking business leader who fully understands the triple bottom line value of strategic sustainability. For that same reason, we don’t anticipate that Jewell will throw fossil fuels under the bus willy-nilly, because although we’re in a historically significant era of transition to clean energy, the fact is that fossil fuels will continue to play a role in the U.S. energy landscape for years to come.

On the other hand, we also anticipate that Jewell has the will and the chops and to build upon the record established by outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. His legacy has been to steer the agency away from a narrow focus on fossil fuel harvesting, and into a broader, more sustainable role that promotes renewable energy, as illustrated by the agency’s key role in supporting offshore wind power and its role in expanding the construction of renewable energy projects at military facilities and other public lands.

Here’s hoping our crystal ball ain’t cracked!

[Image: REI store by vastateparksstaff]

Follow me on Google+ and Twitter.

Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Leave a Reply