Jewell’s background as an engineer and experience in the banking, energy and retail industries give her the skills needed to run a department that oversees 500 million acres of public land, Obama said as he introduced her at the White House.
“She is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future,” Obama said today. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress.”
Obama has said he plans to make lowering the risks of climate change a priority in his second term.
If confirmed by the Senate, Jewell would succeed Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who sought to strengthen oil and gas regulations after BP Plc’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill and to expand solar- and wind-energy projects on federal land. The agency has about 70,000 employees.
Jewell heads a company focused on the outdoors, with sales of clothing, camping and recreational gear reaching almost $2 billion a year. Her 2011 compensation, including $754,307 in base pay, was $2 million, down from $2.28 million a year earlier, according to a statement on the company website. Cabinet secretaries are paid about $200,000 this year.
She joined REI as chief operating officer in 2000 after working at Washington Mutual Inc.’s commercial banking group as president. From 1978 through 1981, she was an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp.
“Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 400 companies. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands.”
The next Interior chief will oversee development of the first federal rules for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. The drilling process has unlocked stores of oil and gas trapped in shale rock formations, and industry representatives have resisted Interior’s push for greater oversight.
Environmental groups say the process, known as fracking, poses risks for water and air pollution and are seeking tighter regulation of the practice.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, a San Francisco-based environmental group, praised Jewell’s selection, noting her efforts to encourage children to enjoy the outdoors.
“President Obama chose a leader with a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans -- recreation, adventure and enjoyment,” Brune said in a statement.
Her selection would add a woman to Obama’s Cabinet. The president drew criticism from some women’s groups after he picked men to lead the State, Treasury and Defense departments in his initial round of second-term nominations.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama believes that a diverse Cabinet improves decision-making and said Jewell is “uniquely qualified” for the Interior post given her business background and commitment to conservation.
The pick is the first in Obama’s second-term energy and environment team. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who promoted clean-energy development, and Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, who oversaw the first U.S. greenhouse-gas regulations, are leaving. Their replacements haven’t been named.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, called Jewell an “inspired choice” because she understands the “critical links between public lands, natural resources and economic growth.” Wyden heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will vote on Jewell’s nomination.
Republicans were more muted. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the panel, said in a statement that she looked forward to learning why Jewell was a “suitable candidate” for taking over an agency that oversees everything from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to logging in Oregon.
Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s public lands subcommittee, said he had reservations about Jewell because REI has “intimately supported several special-interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas.”
Bishop was referring to groups including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has worked to block oil and gas development in Utah, said Melissa Subbotin, his spokeswoman.
Fortune Magazine has placed Kent, Washington-based REI on its list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past 16 years, ranking it No. 17 for this year. REI had sales of more than $1.8 billion in 2011 from more than 120 retail stores in the U.S., according to its website. It was founded in 1938.
The company was one of the first companies to offer health benefits to same-sex couples, according to its website.
Outside REI, Jewell is vice chairman of the National Parks Conservation Association, a board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and chairwoman of the Initiative for Global Development.
She was a key contributor to setting up and implementing Obama’s efforts to promote conservation and recreation. In 2011, she introduced the president at the White House conference on “America’s Great Outdoor Initiative.”
At the time, the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry was the source of 6.5 million jobs.
Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an interview that Jewell was a “thoughtful leader” who would work with both Democrats and Republicans.