Courtesy of REI

President Obama has picked Sally Jewell, president and CEO of outdoor equipment and apparel retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., as his nominee to be the Dept. of the Interior secretary. The choice was a surprise because Jewell had not been among those rumored as a candidate for the top Interior post.

Jewell has strong environmental credentials. She also has a mechanical engineering degree and worked early in her career as an engineer for energy giant Mobil in the Oklahoma and Colorado oil fields.

In announcing Jewell’s selection on Feb. 6, Obama called her “an expert in the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future.” Obama noted Jewell’s background in energy, followed by 19 years in the banking industry and eight years as CEO of Kent., Wash.-based Retail Equipment. “She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” he said.

The Interior agencies that have significant impacts on the construction industry include the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and maintains dams and other water infrastructure in the West; the National Park Service, whose 2012 construction budget totalled $160 million; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose decisions on whether to include certain animals and plants on the endangered-species list can affect the progress of a various types of projects.

If Jewell is confirmed as secretary, she will be in the middle of a long-running fight between environmental groups, which oppose developing much of the federal land Interior oversees, and energy companies, which have been pushing to expand oil and gas drilling on those properties.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called Obama’s selection of Jewell “an inspired choice.” Wyden’s panel has jurisdiction over most Interior Dept. issues and will be the committee that will hold a hearing on Jewell’s nomination.

For many congressional Republicans and oil-and-gas industry officials, the critical issue at Interior will be seeking wider authority to tap hydrocarbon reserves on federal land.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the energy committee, said many people in the western U.S. rely for their livelihoods “on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity.” Murkowski added that she looks forward to hearing how Jewell “plans to restore balance to the Interior Dept.”

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard said, “Increasing access to America’s vast energy resources should be a top priority for the next Interior secretary.”

Environmental groups welcomed Jewell’s selection. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “We look forward to working closely with her to preserve … more of our natural heritage by designating new national monuments, protecting America’s Arctic from risky drilling, and keeping dirty and dangerous fracking out of our public lands.”

If confirmed, Jewell would succeed Ken Salazar, who recently announced he would leave the Interior Dept. to return to Colorado. Before becoming Interior secretary in 2009, Salazar had represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate for four years.