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Obama Picks ‘Climate Expert’ CEO Of REI To Head Interior Department

President Barack Obama has nominated Sally Jewell, the head of Kent, Wash.-based retail chain Recreational Equipment Inc., to lead the Interior Department. 

“I have a great job at REI today, but there's no role that compares to the call to serve my country as Secretary of the Department of Interior,” Jewell said at the White House. “I’m humbled and I’m energized by this opportunity.”

Obama presented the 56-year-old West Seattle resident to reporters as both an outsider and an expert on running the agency that manages a fifth of the land in America.

Even as Sally has spent the majority of her career outside of Washington -- where, I might add, the majority of our interior is located -- she is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future. She is committed to building our nation-to-nation relationship with Indian Country. She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand. She has shown that a company with more than $1 billion in sales can do the right thing for our planet.

It might seem a stretch to call a retail CEO a climate expert.

In 2006, shortly after Sally Jewell became CEO, REI set some goals for itself: Reduce carbon emissions by a third in three years and be carbon-neutral by the year 2020. In other words, the company aimed to reduce, then eliminate, its impact on the global climate.

Since then, REI has meticulously tracked its energy use and climate impact—and made efforts to reduce both. But rather than going down, the company’s carbon emissions have increased by a third.

Air travel associated with REI’s rapidly growing adventure travel business is responsible for most of the growth.

REI buys “carbon offsets” to make up for its increasingly dirty business. Essentially, instead of reducing its own emissions, REI pays somebody else to reduce theirs.

Sally Jewell was a petroleum engineer and a banker before she worked for REI. Her job at Interior would include deciding how much oil and gas production to allow on federal lands and offshore waters. Those decisions could affect carbon emissions far more than anything she did at REI. 

After President Obama introduced Jewell at the White House on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised her as well:

I also know that her successful business record and experience as an oil and gas engineer will serve her well as she implements your all-of-the-above energy agenda, which has been such a keystone to you over the last four years.

That “all-of-the-above” agenda calls for promoting all forms of energy production, whether they harm the climate or not.

Obama has sent mixed signals on his energy policies in recent weeks. He has both reaffirmed his commitment to domestic oil production and called for the U.S. to lead the transition to sustainable energy sources in order to “preserve the planet”:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Jewell’s views on energy production and climate are sure to get an airing in her upcoming Senate confirmation hearings.  If she does get the job, it will be a huge pay cut. She earns more than $2 million a year as the head of REI. That’s about 10 times what she’d make as Secretary of the Interior.

In last year’s elections, Jewell gave about $20,000, mostly to Democratic campaigns, including $5,000 to re-elect President Obama.

Year started with KUOW: 2009