Obama Taps 'Climate Expert' CEO Of REI To Head Interior

By John Ryan

President Barack Obama has nominated the head of retail chain REI to lead the U.S. Interior Department.  Fifty-six-year-old Sally Jewell is the chief executive at REI in Kent, Washington, and a resident of Seattle.

Jewell: “I have a great job at REI but no role that compared to the call to serve my country as secretary of the Department of the Interior. I’m humbled and I’m energized by this opportunity.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Barack Obama introducing Sally Jewell of REI. Whitehouse.gov screengrab.

Obama told reporters on Wednesday that Jewell’s outsider status and her business record make her right for the position.

Obama: “She is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future.”

It might be a stretch to call a retail CEO a climate expert.  Back 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 them. But rather than going down, the company’s carbon emissions have increased by a third.

Photo: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Barack Obama introducing Sally Jewell of REI. Whitehouse.gov screengrab.

Air travel associated with REI’s rapidly growing adventure travel business is responsible for most of the growth. See the North Pole; help melt the ice that covers it for now.  REI buys something called “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.

Salazar: “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.”

Obama’s “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’s both reaffirmed his commitment to Arctic oil production and called for the U.S. to lead the transition to sustainable energy sources in order to “preserve the planet.”

Obama: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Sally 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 mean 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.

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