President Obama’s pick to lead the Interior Department had kind words for coal Thursday but dodged the politically sticky issue of whether she backs a carbon tax — a measure that critics fear would drive the domestic coal industry into the ground.
At a Senate hearing, Sally Jewell, a former oil and gas engineer, banker and private-sector CEO who likely will cruise to confirmation, argued that her position on a carbon tax isn’t relevant. She refused to offer a yes or no answer, despite being asked by both Republican and Democratic senators.
“A carbon tax is not something that would come before me in a role as secretary of the Interior. I would not be in a position to take a position, frankly, around this issue,” Ms. Jewell told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a lengthy hearing Thursday morning.
If confirmed to replace outgoing secretary Kenneth L. Salazar, Ms. Jewell, head of outdoor gear retailing giant REI Inc. and a noted conservationist, will have jurisdiction over all energy production on federal lands.
Despite vast, untapped reserves, fossil-fuel production on public lands has declined under the Obama administration.
Senators questioned Ms. Jewell on whether she would work to boost that production, and whether she backs the president’s stated “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
Pressed by Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, Ms. Jewell backed the use of coal, even though industry backers contend that the White House has decimated the sector through regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA under Mr. Obama, for example, has made it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant. The new rules are expected to soon extend to all existing plants.
“Coal in your home state of West Virginia is certainly very, very important,” Ms. Jewell told Mr. Manchin, a vocal critic of the administration’s environmental policies and in particular its treatment of coal.
“I appreciate that [coal] has been a huge resource in the supporting of electricity and continues to be such in our country. I certainly include that in the all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Ms. Jewell continued.
She stressed that technologies to lower coal’s carbon footprint are vital to the fuel’s long-term inclusion in the nation’s energy portfolio.
With impressive credentials and a deep resume, Ms. Jewell appears to be a shoo-in for the job.
Her business experience comes in addition to her history as a petroleum engineer, a career in which she personally worked on drilling jobs employing the booming new technique of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
“You have worked on the Alaska pipeline. You’re an oil and gas engineer. You said you’ve actually fracked a gas well. You were a banker for 19 years. You’re the chief executive officer of a billion-dollar company. How did you get appointed by this administration?” joked Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.
But her resume isn’t entirely free of controversy. She came under fire during Thursday’s hearing for holding a spot on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that has routinely sued the federal government — and, specifically, the Interior Department — seeking tougher environmental regulation.
The association has filed suits pushing the government to take action against coal-fired power plants that weren’t meeting emissions standards. The group sued to keep loaded, concealed guns out of national parks. In 2011, the group filed suit against the National Park Service for opening wilderness lands to off-road vehicle use.