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Washington • Republicans are raising concerns that Interior Department nominee Sally Jewell belonged to a conservation group that in the past has sued the government dozens of times but the issue doesn't appear to be slowing her confirmation process.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., questioned Jewell about her work on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which Barrasso noted has sued to shut down coal-fired power plants, halt coal mining and block oil and gas drilling. In all, the association has sued the federal government 59 times since Jewell joined the board in 2004.
"It's unsettling to many that you have a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to leading the Department of Interior because many of these 59 lawsuits your organization filed against the government are still pending," Barrasso said during Jewell's confirmation hearing last week.
A list of cases provided by Barrasso's office shows 74 cases the NPCA has filed or intervened in since 2000. Four of the cases involve Utah oil and gas drilling permits.
One of those cases, brought by the NPCA, the Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other environmental groups, seeks to overturn oil and gas leases put in place by the Bush administration near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. The case is still pending.
Barrasso wanted Jewell to say she would recuse herself from any settlements or litigation strategy on cases involving the NPCA, and noted that because the group often seeks legal fees after suing or delays projects, it is "putting Americans out of work."
Jewell, the former head of Recreational Equipment Inc., noted that she is roughly one of 30 board members and has not been involved in its lawsuits.
"I play no role in anything that they may do around litigation," she said.
Jewell added that if confirmed, she would counsel the appropriate ethics official whenever an issue about NPCA came before her at Interior. She repeated the comment when Barrasso pressed again.
Tom Kiernan, president of the NPCA, backed Jewell on the concern, noting that she has had no involvement in approving or generating any lawsuits by the group.
"Lawsuits are an unfortunate consequence of disputes over the implementation of laws and policies set by our federal government," Kiernan said in a statement. He called lawsuits a "last-resort strategy" for the group.
Kiernan said Jewell would make a "top-notch" member of the president's Cabinet "and we look forward to working with her to ensure our national parks are better protected and enhanced for future generations to enjoy."
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has yet to set a confirmation vote for Jewell's nomination, though at least one Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted during the hearing last week that she seemed to be someone a GOP president would nominate because of her past work as an oil and gas engineer.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sits on the committee but is undecided so far on how he'll vote on the nominee.