RFF is releasing a new episode in its Policy Leadership Series Podcast, which highlights conversations with leading decisionmakers on environmental and energy issues at RFF’s flagship Policy Leadership Series events. In this episode, RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell and former US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell discuss Jewell’s policy priorities during the years she led the Department of the Interior in 2013–2017, the Biden administration’s ambitious conservation goals, and how federal climate policy can drive meaningful change from corporate leaders.
Visit the event webpage to watch a video recording of this conversation.
Listen to the Podcast
- Sally Jewell: “What’s most important is to move … to a time when the interests of the environment are aligned with the interests of economic development, and that’s done through thoughtful regulations. That is what we’re beginning to see, and I think it’s absolutely critical. You will not change corporate practices as long as [environmental stewardship] places corporations at a competitive disadvantage.” (12:37)
- Richard G. Newell: “Sometimes, a smart policy design can set a performance standard and give flexibility for achieving that. In other cases, particularly when you talk about permitting and siting, it’s a bit more hands on and planning oriented. The role depends very clearly on the context.” (15:41)
- Sally Jewell: “You can’t shut off our dependence on fossil fuels overnight, and beyond the development of fossil fuels and burning them for energy transmission and generation, they’re also used in plastics and pharmaceuticals and all kinds of things. What is the path forward, and how do you help those communities not just retool, but create jobs of the future—not just jobs that rely on things being done the way they were in the past?” (21:04)
- Sally Jewell: “You can protect something, but if it’s prone to forest fires, how do you make sure that it’s not just a land for today, but it’s resilient land as the climate changes? … We want to make sure these areas are supported, so they don’t revert, and we need to work with private state and Indigenous landowners in order to get there.” (27:21)
- Sally Jewell: “The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act provide very, very fertile ground for holding businesses and polluters accountable. That has been absolutely invaluable to the health and welfare of all of us and a model for the world. Those things don’t happen by the goodness of people’s hearts. Sometimes you’ve got to sue to make sure that they are upheld, and I think that’s been enormously helpful.” (41:56)
The Full Transcript
Elizabeth Wason: Welcome to the Policy Leadership Series Podcast from Resources for the Future. In every episode, leading global decisionmakers speak to RFF President & CEO Richard Newell about big environmental and energy policy issues. In this episode, Richard speaks to former US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Jewell served as Interior Secretary in the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017 and is currently a global board member of the Nature Conservancy, where she previously served as interim CEO. Their conversation took place on April 7th.
Richard G. Newell: Sally, thanks so much for taking the time to join us in this Policy Leadership Series event.
Sally Jewell: It's my pleasure, Richard. Thanks for the invitation.
Richard G. Newell: I'd like to begin with the story of your career. You've dedicated a lot of your professional life to public lands and conservation. You started your career as an engineer in the energy sector and spent nearly two decades in commercial banking, served as president and CEO of REI, all before your term as Interior Secretary, and now you serve as a global board member of the Nature Conservancy. During your time as Interior Secretary, you were really recognized for championing a science and data-based approach to resource management, and your support of monumental conservation efforts.
Your work included preserving more than 265 million acres of land and water, which is more than any other administration in history. That included almost 3 million acres in the national park system. That's all in addition to paving the way forward for renewable energy development on public lands and advocating for indigenous communities and groups. It's quite incredible and really only a quick summary of highlights. With that remarkable lead-in, what experiences would you say have been most influential or impactful in your career so far?
Sally Jewell: Well, it's an interesting question. My career has jumped around a lot, and people say, well, how do you knit together being an engineer in the oil and gas industry and then working in banking and then REI and then Interior? The truth is the things that have knit my career together actually have been the things I wasn't paid to do; it’s been volunteer service to a large extent. Beginning as an engineer is really helpful because you're trained as a problem solver, you're trained in the sciences, trained to sort of understand how things work and figure out what it is that’s an issue and how do you go about fixing it.
That was incredibly good training, but I would say that starting in the oil and gas fields of Southern Oklahoma, which is where I began after graduating from college, you really do get a very up close and personal sense of the impact on the environment from the work that you do. That certainly never left me. They're great people that I worked with in the industry. They have important jobs that they want to hang on to, it's been in their family for a long time.
But also, I witnessed many spills, the impact of saltwater on the ecosystem, which people don't think about, but it's more damaging than oil sometimes, and it gave me a perspective that I think was really helpful. Banking, which I went into as a natural resource expert, and I saw a lot of banks make bad loans to the oil and gas sector, and I got credited with not making those for the bank that I worked for because that was my job.
It's a kind of career where you get a real breadth of perspective. I don't think that President Obama or the people that worked with him on nominating me had any idea that I’d worked with grazing companies and mining companies and the forest products industry and the fishing industry. All of those things gave me a perspective of the jobs, the people, the places they lived, what was important to them, but it really, if you knit it all together, it's really the volunteer service.
It's volunteering in environmental organizations, which is what connected me to REI. I went on the board and they later hired me as chief operating officer and then CEO. It was volunteering in education, K-12, but also the University of Washington. It was volunteering in social service organizations that gave me a sense of people that did not have the advantages that I grew up with, and I would say that all of that was incredibly helpful in becoming Secretary of the Interior, and I think probably fueled an interest in being a lifelong learner, which doesn't hurt either, because that job is like studying for a final every night.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, exactly. You touched on this a little bit, Sally, already, but what would you say were the most important lessons you learned from your tenure as Secretary of the Interior?
Sally Jewell: I learned that the most important thing you can do is to listen, that people have a huge interest in what you do. In the case of Native American tribes and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, they rely on Interior as the agency that is their advocate. When you are trying to deal with things like the trade-offs between say, setting land aside for conservation, but also recognizing the multiple-use and the sustained yield mandate of, say the Bureau of Land Management, before you make decisions on something that may seem obvious to one group, you have to think about what are the consequences on another group.
The biggest and most important lesson that I learned was to bring people together around a table, sometimes over many months, or even years, to listen and say, I always found common ground. From the farthest-right seeming individuals that generally may have made great assumptions about me, probably inaccurate, to the assumptions that others may have made about them, including myself, how do you get past that, build a relationship, and come up with that common ground?
Probably the best example of that was the work that we did with really seven core states, the oil and gas industry, the grazing industry, transmissions, and energy development on a decision over whether or not to list the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species. That sounds esoteric, right? 144 million acres of land, and if a species is classified, then the states lose some control over their ability on where to develop or not to develop, same with private landowners and so on.
They didn't want that to happen, but the problem was all the different state programs were disjointed, getting them together, finding that common ground. You had ranchers saying, "Hey, actually, what's good for the bird is good for the herd." You had oil and gas companies, and the Trump administration went to reexamine this work after we had a deal, and yet, the oil and gas industry is going to the governor of some western state saying, "Wait a minute, why is this administration revisiting it? We thought we had a deal."
The biggest lessons are about listening and recognizing that people aren't going to always tell you all the parts of the story. You've actually got to go find them. As secretary, that's tough because you’ve got a lot of people around you and they know the decision they want you to make, but you have to make sure you're making the right decision on behalf of the American people and not satisfying one group over another.
Richard G. Newell: That's really insightful. I want to come back in a little bit to delve a little bit further into this issue of national relative to state interests and multiple interests that tend to come together in public lands conversations. Before we do that though, I want to turn for a moment to corporate action on climate. There have been several corporations—actually many at this point—that have set ambitious emission reduction goals and are charting a path forward to a cleaner future.
Drawing on your time spent in the corporate sector, what role do you think corporations can play in emissions reductions through their own voluntary commitments and how much of the way can consumer demand and reputational risk and corporate, citizen activism and the role of investment community, how far can they take us in addressing climate change? What's their role relative to the role of public policy?
Sally Jewell: Yeah. It's a great question and it's continuing to evolve. Let me go back to the time when I took over as CEO of REI because this was an area where I was really struggling saying, this is an organization, a member-owned cooperative, REI, which now has something like 18 million members, that is all about facilitating people's enjoyment of the great outdoors. Yet, if our corporate practices were inconsistent with that because of our carbon footprint or water, or the products and what happens to them and end of life, or our buildings, you name it, then how can we, with a good conscience, not try and become part of the solution?
In 2005, we launched a major effort to do this, and it was difficult because it was early. There weren't a lot of players in there. We sort of went through a whole process saying, what's our impact on the biosphere? Then what are the areas that we first need to approach and that we hired our first sustainability manager to do that. Today, there's certainly a lot more talk about it. I would say businesses ignore things like ESG [Environment, Social, and Governance] principles at their peril. You have major investors that are starting to hold businesses accountable. So, it is becoming table stakes, I would say, for businesses, and there is reputational risk.
It's tricky because if you, as a business, take credit for what you're doing well, it's never going to be good enough with where some groups believe you should go. So, it's a tricky balance, but I would say, you asked about voluntary programs, certainly when REI geared up to do this, and they were carbon neutral last year, but some of it was through the purchase of carbon offsets. A voluntary program is problematic if making those decisions does, in fact, put you at a competitive financial disadvantage to a competitor.
Biggest competitor of probably any retailer out there would be Amazon right now. Are people holding them accountable? Generally, consumers won't pay more. I would say what's most important is to move from the voluntary to a time when the interests of the environment are aligned with the interests of economic development, and that's done through thoughtful regulations, and that is what we're beginning to see and I think it's absolutely critical. You will not change corporate practices as long as it places corporations at a competitive disadvantage, but thoughtful regulations can actually do the opposite.
It can place the polluters or the problem organizations at a competitive disadvantage to those that are doing the right thing. If you want, I can just give a couple of examples.
Richard G. Newell: Please.
Sally Jewell: Okay. Well, so some of the most obvious ones would be mileage standards in cars driven through the EPA. One of the reasons I was tapped to become secretary of the Interior was a recommendation from a mentor of mine, and that was Bill Ruckelshaus, the first-ever head of the EPA, a Republican lifelong until recent years, and he just passed last year. But Bill really understood the benefit of thoughtful regulations, so, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which we take for granted now, I mean, he was saying to me, “it was much easier to do because people couldn't breathe the air and the rivers were on fire, so people felt a sense of doom without taking action.”
But mileage standards in cars, what did those do? They put standards out there into the future. Then they unlocked business innovation by saying, “this is the requirement, you've got time to get there,” and they innovated on how do I get a better mileage vehicle with equal power and less emissions? And that's one of the reasons why we've got much cleaner air now than we had before. That's an example I think everybody can wrap their head around.
More examples from Interior have to do with landscape-level planning and saying let's drive activity like for renewable energy, to the places of highest potential and lowest conflict, environmental, tribal, community so that you're reducing the cost of those utilities by driving them to the places that are already disturbed, where you've done the environmental impact statements, you've consulted with the tribes, you've consulted with the landowners, and you say, “go here, and what's the role of government? We'll expedite your permit if you go there. You'll have it within 90 days.”
I mean, that's money in the bank for those organizations, but it helps California with its thoughtful regulations around renewable energy standards get merchant power providers to invest in renewable energy plants by reducing their costs, going to those areas on public lands and accelerating it forward. Those are a couple of examples.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah. Those are actually different examples in the sense that sometimes a smart policy design can set a performance standard and give flexibility for achieving that. In other cases, particularly when you talk about permitting and siting, it's a bit more hands on and planning-oriented. The role depends very clearly on the context. I actually want to come back in a little bit to renewable energy deployment on public lands, but first, I want to talk about the recent Biden administration executive order, which placed a temporary pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands, and also called for a federal review of those practices.
I guess, first, I want to take it a little bit, but what do you make of that order in its origins?
Sally Jewell: Well, the order is absolutely sensible and needs to be done. No question about it. What the critics of the order don't say is that the Trump administration took what had been thoughtful, strategic openings of leasing, to where the taxpayer got a fair return, because there was a competitive leasing process. You went to the areas of highest potential and lowest conflict. So, you got more in terms of lease rates and royalties and so on by having that competitive process. The Trump administration threw it all wide open, which had also happened during the Bush years.
What the critics don't tell you is that hundreds of thousands of acres were opened up to leasing without any discernment or focus on getting returned for taxpayers. There's about 10,000 approved permits to drill that have not yet been drilled on public lands already sitting on the shelf in these companies. Putting a pause on a program that has basically not had a review for something like three decades is entirely appropriate, and it won't for a second slow down economic activities if these companies choose to do them.
The economics of oil are changing. But I'll give you an example because I did this too, and I did it for the federal coal leasing program. Federal coal leasing program had literally not been looked at in 35 years, and we were basically giving coal away for as little as $1 a ton. That was mostly in the Powder River Basin area in Wyoming and Montana. In some cases, people were doing non-arms length transactions and then selling it overseas for a multiple on what the taxpayer got in terms of a royalty.
The taxpayer gets that $1 a ton. That, I mean, it's absurd looking at the impact of coal mining on the environment and what the taxpayer gets in return. Those are laws that were formed at a time when we were really worried about our dependence on foreign oil and so on and so forth, and so it was, “let's just reduce that dependence by increasing coal mining,” but we know a lot more now about the impacts of that. So, I put a pause on it and got all kinds of criticism for it being a moratorium. The Trump administration reversed it because there was not sufficient time to do the complete environmental impact statement, but that reversal actually got challenged in the court because we did it the right way.
We did listening sessions and that's how we should proceed for oil and gas. So, we need to do a review. What worked 35 years ago is not accurate today, and I think I'm all for the Biden administration's efforts in this regard.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah. If I could maybe dig a little bit deeper and reflect back on something that you started mentioning earlier, and I know you confronted as Interior Secretary, which is a delicate and at-times difficult balance between the use of public lands and waters for energy development relative to conservation and also the attainment of national goals such as climate. This often involves a reconciliation between national interests and state and local impacts. Those impacts can be related to revenue sharing or also addressing the impacts of climate and development itself through investment in local communities.
These issues tend to be of particular importance to Western states like New Mexico and Wyoming, but they're also really relevant for coastal communities and states along the Gulf of Mexico, like Louisiana and Texas. What did you learn about this balance as Interior Secretary, and what advice do you have for policy evolution as things move forward?
Sally Jewell: Well, I think it's a great question and it has to be addressed. We have a huge problem, and a growing problem, with climate change. The parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at a record level, 421 parts per million, well beyond where it's been for, I think they've estimated 800,000 years. That's coming from our burning of fossil fuels. It's got to be addressed, but the jobs associated with that sector are really critical. The politicians from the states associated with those jobs really have to advocate for the people in those states, and that's really important.
We can't ignore that. First, you can't shut off our dependence on fossil fuels overnight, and beyond the development of fossil fuels and burning them for energy transmission and generation, they're also used in plastics and pharmaceuticals and all kinds of things that we take for granted. What is the path forward and how do you help those communities, not just retool, but create jobs of the future, not just jobs that rely on things being done the way they were in the past?
I want to give you a quick example of this. When I was in office, in the President's budget, we had a program called POWER Plus, and it basically was dealing with this for coal miners in Appalachia. Appalachian coal, other than for metallurgical reasons, making of steel, which is a tiny amount, is not economic to produce, and yet, the landscapes have been devastated with large coal refuse piles, leaching acid, and selenium, and other heavy metals into the water supplies, which just killed a lot of the rivers throughout Appalachia and the streams.
They've been abandoned and left and not reclaimed. There was money set aside in the treasury to deal with reclamation, but it had to be unlocked by Congress. POWER Plus said, “please, Congress, unlock this money that's already sitting there.” I think we'd asked for 500 million a year over five years or something like that, or maybe it's 200 million over five years for a billion, and we didn't get that, but we did get a pilot of $90 million because Hal Rogers from Kentucky at the time was chairing the House Appropriations Committee.
We put coal miners to work who were late career, and they're like my age, and their kids did not see themselves working in coal, but we put them to work using this reclamation money to move those dangerous leaching, coal refuse piles, and put them back in the pits where they came from, and layer them with lime, which neutralizes the acid, and it begins to reclaim those lands so that they can be used for all kinds of other things, right? Distribution, logistics, quality of life, opportunities: we need to think about those kinds of things for the Gulf Coast as we transition away, but it's going to be years.
Richard G. Newell: This is a really important issue, and I'll just put in a plug for research that we've been doing at RFF around fairness for workers and communities and transition. It's a very active conversation in Congress now, of course with the Biden administration, how does the country do right by communities who, for various reasons, may be economically dislocated. If any of you are interested in that, please just go to our website and look up the Fairness for Workers in Communities and Transition series.
Elizabeth Wason: Each episode of RFF's Policy Leadership Series Podcast is made possible by listeners like you. This series provides thoughtful conversations with leading experts to better connect and inform our community on the latest environmental and economics issues. You can help us by supporting RFF. You join us in our mission to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economics research and policy engagement. Learn more about contributing to RFF today by visiting rff.org/support.
Richard G. Newell: I want to turn to another executive order that's been put forward by the Biden administration, which sets a really ambitious goal to conserve 30 percent of US land and 30 percent of US ocean waters by 2030. It's 2021, so that's about nine years to achieve that goal. If we take a quick tally, we're at about 12 percent of lands and 26 percent of ocean waters that are already conserved through national purposes, state parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas. It appears that we're pretty close on oceans, but let's focus on lands. Given where we sit today with societal views and the political context, is this achievable? And if so, what types of actions would make us achievable by 2030?
Sally Jewell: Yes. I mean, I think it is achievable. I don't think it is achievable on public lands alone, nor do I think it should be. This is an area of particular focus for the Nature Conservancy, and you mentioned I sit on the board there and as chair of the conservation committee, and they have been very focused on this. There's a phrase they use, which I think is really important for people to remember, which is: “preserve the best and improve the rest.” It's not just 30 percent by the numbers. Yes, we've got 12 percent protected, but of that 12 percent, how much is rock and ice in high alpine environments?
Rock and ice in high alpine environments may be important to pikas and marmots, but it's not critical to biodiversity, and it's not the areas that are under the greatest threat. It is making sure that there is representation, that every kind of habitat that is natural or near natural is included in this 30 percent. That may be on indigenous lands. If that's the case, it's got to be done with prior informed consent and support by tribal communities and frankly, a willingness for the rest of us to provide economic support so it can stay in that form.
It is potentially working with private landowners, and we did this a little bit with the sage-grouse work in the American West. It's like, if critical habitat exists on private lands that have oil and gas underneath them, we made a provision that said, “well, we will potentially lease to you on public lands, so you can drill under that and drain that without disturbing the surface, and therefore the ecosystem.” So, it is about representation, and there's all kinds of science that's been done around this. It's been done by the US Geological Survey, wildlife agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, organizations like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and others where we know where the habitat is.
How do we support and protect that? That's important. It's also resilience. You can protect something, but if it's prone to forest fires, or if you’re already seeing, like we see in Joshua Tree National Park, the Joshua Tree's migrating up slope over time, how do you make sure that it's not just a land for today, but it's resilient land as the climate changes? How do you improve the rest? So, if it's “protect the best and improve the rest,” that's sustainable agriculture, it's sustainable forestry, it's addressing wildfire risk, grazing, all of those kinds of things.
Then there's more, but we don't want to lose what we've got, that intact wilderness. We want to make sure these areas are supported so it doesn't revert, and we need to work with private state and indigenous landowners in order to get there.
Richard G. Newell: I definitely learned a lot right there. At the highest level, I hear like, the 30 percent we should be thinking about is not just public; it's private. And we should also not just be thinking about the 30 percent number. It's also the quality along a number of different dimensions. Really important to think about.
Sally Jewell: Could I mention one other thing, Richard?
Richard G. Newell: Yeah.
Sally Jewell: We need to really look at nature differently. I live in Seattle and the Wilderness Society actually commissioned an economic study by a third party on, what is the value of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which just sits to the East of Seattle? The answer is, just on economic terms, they came up with $1 trillion over a 100 year period of time, and they looked at eliminating needs for water treatment plants for water storage, reservoirs for air quality, all those things without looking at cutting a single tree.
We have this mindset, and a lot of our federal laws are written this way, that the public lands are there for the economic taking, oil and gas exploitation, grazing, forestry, and that has been changing at least for in the forestry sector in particular, but are we willing to acknowledge the ecosystem services benefits we get from nature and quantifying those? I think that's also something; it's a mindset change that we really need to be thinking of educating the public in, but also thinking about our laws in that context.
Richard G. Newell: I don't know if you know this, Sally, but if you go back to the earliest days of work at RFF, so much of that was about quantifying, in economic terms, the value of lands for different purposes for resource development, for forests, for energy, and so on, but also the recreational benefits of land. You're speaking to the choir on that front.
Sally Jewell: Great. Thank you.
Richard G. Newell: You've also talked about the importance of moving toward a more sustainable future by encouraging investment in renewable energy on public lands. I think it's safe to say that you pioneered this during your time as Secretary. You and your staff created actionable plans by analyzing what's possible, what areas should be considered for development. I think you referenced this earlier, you signed a memorandum of understanding with the Governor of California, and you approved the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
This is a critically important issue. It's going to be increasingly important as we deploy additional renewable energy on a variety of both public and private lands. So, what did you learn about your leadership during this process?
Sally Jewell: Well, again, it gets back to the early lesson I mentioned, which is the importance of listening to different points of view, and trying to find the common ground. What is the objective? What's the goal? I have to give credit to my predecessor, Ken Salazar, who really was focused on what he called a moonshot on renewable energy on public lands. Before Ken took over at Interior, there had been zero projects for renewable energy on public lands, none. By the time I ended my term with President Obama, we had close to 60 different projects that had been permitted, and most of those were in the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada.
Ken started the process. I continued it. It was about listening. In the Mojave Desert, in California alone, there's about 20 million acres, 10 million of it controlled by the federal government, and the other 10 million under the state and local jurisdictions within California. We were able to get the federal part done. In those 10 million federal lands, there's a huge amount that's military bases and things, there's protected areas, national parks from Death Valley to Joshua Tree, there are Bureau of Land Management lands—some protected for conservation, some we added through national monument designations, and some off-highway vehicle use, and you know, grazing and other things.
Our approach was: let's understand the uses, let's understand the demand and what California's trying to get to, and let's listen to the different interests. I'll give you one mini example. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in the Mojave Desert Area was interested in economic activities for their members. One of the first utility-scale solar installations I went to was on tribal land. I think they had six permanent jobs maintaining those solar panels and those systems.
I want to say, the majority, if not all of the workers, were from that tribal community. Economic activity, leasing the land to the developer, and also creating jobs in the local community. If you look at the map, and I encourage your listeners to go to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan page on the Bureau of Land Management website, and they can see the layers on a map that said, what's the critical habitat? What's the land ownership? Where are the areas disturbed? Where is it environmentally? Good to go and not good to go.
And you zero in on what the Trump administration criticized as tiny little areas and so much wasted. Well, if you went to those tiny little areas, which actually are quite vast, you could power the state of California multiple times over. That is the value of listening. And again, de-conflicting, reducing the cost for the merchant power generators, creating economic opportunity locally, helping the state meet its renewable energy standards. It's kind of one of those win-win-wins. Another example of where we did this is learning from the Gulf of Mexico, and my predecessor, Ken Salazar, had to deal with that horrible Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which certainly put risks and environmental impacts on the map for everyone.
We said, we, as the federal government, in leasing waters for oil and gas have made some mistakes in the Gulf of Mexico. There are critical habitats that have been damaged to where they are no longer the habitat they once were, and that's not even including things like the spill. How do we learn lessons and go to the windy and relatively shallow Atlantic to do offshore wind, but do it in the right ways and in the right places? De-conflict for military, for maritime uses, for the fishing industry, for people's views from their beautiful waterfront homes, and they don't want to look at flashing red lights.
That's what we did, and now you've seen it really take off like a rocket from a standing start during ,actually, late, even in my term. Went from a million dollars to a hundred and some million dollars, to now hundreds of millions of dollars for lease sales for the federal Treasury that's driving that transition to renewables there. Another good example of thoughtful regulation.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah. I was, actually, just going to ask you about that, and so let me build on that a little bit. When you were a secretary, you worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to understand the contributions of new energy technologies like auctioning of offshore resources, what role they could play in the energy sector. We at RFF have been doing and are about to issue a major report around the opportunities for advanced energy technologies and what the benefits of those policies are in contributing to clean energy innovation. How has your thinking evolved as to the role of research and innovation and its value to society in facilitating the transition?
Sally Jewell: I think it's absolutely critical. It's sort of ironic that one of the reasons why we've had the boom in US-produced oil and gas is because of technology developed at the Department of Energy on directional drilling that enabled those shale gases and so on to be exploited. That is the same kind of thing though, that as we do like Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy [ARPA-E] and the NREL work is saying, what are the advancements in technology that can be captured to help the United States become a leader in this? We have been in so many ways, but with policies that don't support that or research dollars that don't support that, that may go to private universities or public universities, it is going to be very difficult to compete with the rest of the world that's really on this.
I would say the cheapest panels that do a decent job are now made in China. They could have potentially been made in the United States if we had maintained our focus. I think that investments in R&D are really critical, and frankly, in the renewable energy space, if we share them worldwide, that will help our world recover from our dependence on fossil fuels and the emissions that result from burning them. I just can't emphasize enough the importance of investments in fundamental, basic building block research that then can be scaled and taken up by the private sector. I think it's super important.
Richard G. Newell: I want to talk to you a little bit about your fellowship at Harvard. You accepted the fellowship in 2017, and you made many contributions in this, numerous panels, papers, talks, but there was one in particular that caught my attention. I understand that one of the study group sessions you organized during your fellowship was titled “Why Getting Sued Can Be Good,” in reference to the fact that you were sued about three times a week, if I understand it correctly during your time as secretary. You found ways to appreciate some of the aspects of those lawsuits and took the time to share those lessons learned. Could you tell us, help us understand why getting sued can actually be good?
Sally Jewell: Yes, and this is not something that I came in understanding at all, because as a businessperson, you do your best to avoid lawsuits of any sort. You pragmatically say, “what's the cost to fight it, even if it has no merit? Do you settle, just get it to go away?” I remember talking to Bruce Babbitt, who was Secretary of the Interior for Bill Clinton while I was going through my confirmation hearings, or maybe it was early on in my tenure, and I said, “ugh, I get so frustrated just getting sued constantly. I think I've got some of the best interest of these organizations suing me in mind, but we need time to work it through and go through the process,” and he said, "Before you jump on it too hard, recognize that they actually can do some really important work."
Yes, when you are dealing with students, you have to use clickbait, right? So, what's the catchy title that's going to get people to come to your sessions and engage deeply, and so “when getting sued can be good” is what I used for that purpose. Lawsuits and our system of justice help point out when we've got flaws in our laws that need to be addressed, but also when we are not being held accountable for upholding them. Let me give you an example. The most frequent lawsuits that any Secretary of the Interior gets are around endangered species, or species that people want to petition for listing. Two of the frequent filers of lawsuits will be the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.
I met with both of them several times during my tenure as Secretary and afterwards. I think that they do hold the government accountable. There was I think 600 or so species that had been petitioned by those organizations and others for listing during the Bush years, and no action had been taken on them. So, the Obama administration settled this multi-district litigation settlement that said, by date, certain, the greater sage-grouse being one of them, we will make a determination. Those lawsuits and the settlement pointed out that, hey, you can't just ignore endangered species when you are an administration that may think that that's not important.
It is still the law. However, we said, it's awfully easy just to say, “I'm in a petition listing a species without actually doing a lot of work.” During our tenure, we were very supportive of trying to address endangered species, but how do we make it reasonable so that we can in fact respond in a timely way? We did some policy changes to say there is more work that has to be done upfront before anybody can just petition any species for listing, so that's just an illustration. But the Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act provide very, very fertile ground for holding businesses and polluters accountable. That has been absolutely invaluable to the health and welfare of all of us and a model for the world.
Those things don't happen by the goodness of people's hearts. Sometimes you’ve got to sue to make sure that they are upheld, and I think that's been enormously helpful. So, yes, that's the reason behind it.
Richard G. Newell: Well, time really does fly, and so we've reached the end of the session, and I want to thank you again, Sally.
Sally Jewell: Can I just say one thing to your audience? Which is, please thank the public servants that you come in contact with. It has been profoundly difficult to be a public servant, and yet it's these people that serve every day, whether it's on public lands or behind the scenes, as scientists, as tribal liaisons, and so on. Just thank them the next time you see them and recognize what a tough job they have. Thanks for the opportunity, Richard.
Richard G. Newell: Thank you so much, Sally. Have a great day, everybody.
Sally Jewell: Bye-bye.
Elizabeth Wason: That was Richard Newell, President and CEO of Resources for the Future in conversation with former US Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. If you like what you heard, remember to like or favorite RFF's Policy Leadership Series Podcast on your podcast platform of choice. We will release new episodes every month with leading environmental and energy policy decisionmakers. You also can find recordings from our Policy Leadership Series events at rff.org/pls, and receive updates about RFF's events and podcasts at rff.org/subscribe. The live event was produced by Hillary Alvare, Libby Casey, Justine Sullivan, and Sarah Tung. Music is from Blue Dot Sessions. RFF podcasts are managed by me, Elizabeth Wason, and made possible by you, our listeners. You can contribute to RFF today by visiting our rff.org/support. Thank you for joining us.