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Senate panel OK's new Interior Secretary nominee

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves with Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., his nominee for Interior Secretary, at the White H
U.S. President Barack Obama leaves with Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., his nominee for Interior Secretary, at the White H

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate committee on Thursday approved Sally Jewell's nomination to lead the Interior Department after the Obama administration struck a deal with a Republican senator over the construction of an emergency road for a remote Alaskan town.

With a vote of 19 to 3 in favor, Jewell's nomination will now move on for consideration by the full Senate. It is unclear when that vote will be held.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination after the Interior Department signaled it would block construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge connecting the residents of King Cove, Alaska, to an airport in nearby Cold Bay.

King Cove residents said the road was needed for emergency medical evacuations, but the department's environmental review last month said the road would damage the ecology of the refuge.

After discussions between Murkowski, current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden on Wednesday night, the department said it would take a second look at the proposal for the road.

As part of this deal, the department will evaluate whether its environmental review adequately considered protecting human health. It also will consult with native groups and hold public hearings on the issue in King Cove.

"This process that the secretary has laid out doesn't get the people of King Cove their road tomorrow, but what it does allow for is a re-assessment of what Fish and Wildlife did with their assessment," Murkowski told reporters after voting in favor of moving Jewell's nomination out of the committee.

The additional review will likely last at least nine months, meaning the ultimate decision will almost certainly fall to Jewell if she is confirmed.

Murkowski said the first environmental review was flawed because it did not properly account for the "human factor" and the needs of the residents.

Despite the vote to move the nomination ahead, Murkowski and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised concerns that Jewell had not fully answered questions posed by the senators and said they planned to continue to seek answers.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who voted against Jewell, said he remains unconvinced the chief executive of outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI and former banker has the right experience to lead Interior.

"During her confirmation hearing she struggled to answer some central questions about issues under the control of the department," Barrasso said.

Barrasso also repeated questions about Jewell's role on the board of trustees for the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent group that advocates on behalf of the national parks system.

The group has ongoing lawsuits against the federal government over public lands, which Barrasso has said represents a conflict of interest for Jewell.

Murkowski plans to continue to press Jewell for more detailed responses to dozens of questions submitted to her, including queries regarding administration plans that could add new conservation areas to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Wyden told reporters he planned to work with members of the committee to see when they would be comfortable bringing a vote on Jewell to the Senate floor.

(Editing by Ros Krasny, Gerald E. McCormick, Dan Grebler and Andre Grenon)

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