The U.S. interior department has a confounding mandate: to serve as a steward of America’s public lands and to oversee the development of natural resources on those lands. On the one hand, the department ensures that public lands are preserved for education, science and recreation. Conversely, it must oversee the extraction of valuable natural resources to support the wider economy.
The degree to which either mission is favored depends upon the party in control of the presidency.
President Obama’s recent choice to lead the interior department, Sally Jewell, shows his commitment to giving equal weight to both priorities. This is in contrast to President George W. Bush, who most often favored policies that prized resource extraction over land protection.
Jewell has direct experience in the oil industry, serving as an engineer with Mobil (now ExxonMobil), and is an influential proponent of conservation and recreation. She’s currently CEO of Recreational Equipment Incorporated and is a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association.
The National Resources Defense Council praised Obama’s choice, stating in a press release that she “… has the mind of an engineer, the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman.”
The oil, gas and mining industries have been largely silent on the nomination, which is a sign that they think she’ll be friendly to their interests or, at the very least, won’t be overtly threatening.
I think it’s telling that the top Republican in the House that oversees these issues, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was mostly neutral about Jewell’s appointment. She said that she “look[s] forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency.” Translation: There won’t be an acrimonious confirmation fight.
While Murkowski, who supports increased oil drilling in Alaska, is likely to ask the prospective secretary critical questions about her approach to drilling on public lands, there doesn’t seem to be any overt hostility. A good sign in these partisan times.
There has, however, been some conservative grumbling that Jewell will be bad for job creation — or, more specifically, that she’ll block developments that could potentially create jobs.
In a recent piece, Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel tried to paint Jewell as an environmental radical hostile to economic interests. She says Jewell will “lock up land, target industries and kill traditional jobs.”
Strassel may be right in thinking that Jewell won’t be so friendly to the extraction industries. To me, this makes Jewell’s nomination even stronger — she knows the oil and gas industries well, but won’t be afraid to stand up to them.
What angers me is Strassel’s basic argument that environmental conservation always kills jobs. This claim is disingenuous and ignores several factors, not the least of which are the number of jobs created by the outdoor recreation industry.
Media Matters points out that the outdoor recreation industry directly supports 6.1 million jobs, which is, according to their research, nearly three times the jobs that the oil and gas industry claims to support.
My point is not to quibble over jobs numbers. I’d simply like to point out the Strassel’s “traditional” oil and gas jobs aren’t necessarily superior to those that come from “nontraditional” areas like outdoor recreation.
Public land management requires a delicate balancing act between use and preservation. Oil and gas are important industries, and we shouldn’t be stonewalling them. But we should also take preservation seriously and think deeply about sacrificing environmental quality for economic growth.
If Jewell’s background is any indication, she may be the secretary that can effectively balance the two mandates.
If she’s successful in doing this, both sides are likely to be unhappy. In an agency with such conflicting priorities, this is exactly how it should be. Pay little heed to petty grumbling. Our environmental future deserves much better.