Louisiana Republican optimistic after meeting with new drilling regulator

A Republican senator who has criticized the Obama administration’s handling of offshore drilling said he was newly optimistic after meeting with the industry’s top regulator.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., made the observation late Tuesday after sitting down with James Watson, the newly minted director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The retiring Coast Guard rear admiral took over the post from Michael Bromwich on Dec. 1.

Vitter described the meeting as “productive.”

“It was important to get this relationship off to a positive start so we can hopefully see his agency begin ramping up permitting again,” Vitter said in a statement. “It’s for the good of the country and Louisiana in particular for them to open up the Gulf of Mexico to get us back to the job and energy production we need.”

The comity may have ended there, since Vitter couldn’t resist a parting swipe at Bromwich:

“Frankly, it can’t get much worse than it was under Admiral Watson’s predecessor, Michael Bromwich, and I’m pushing hard for it to get better.”

Vitter is one of several Gulf Coast lawmakers and oil industry advocates who publicly tangled with Bromwich over the pace of offshore drilling permitting in the wake of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. They accused the government of moving too quickly to impose new regulations on offshore drilling and then crawling in processing applications to drill offshore.

A former federal prosecutor with a reputation for cleaning up troubled agencies — including Delaware prisons and the Houston crime lab — Bromwich was widely viewed as an aggressive enforcer tasked with revamping the former Minerals Management Service that policed offshore drilling. Bromwich spent 17 months leading an overhaul of the agency, which was ultimately divided into the safety bureau and a separate Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Like Bromwich, Watson doesn’t have an oil and gas industry background. But he is still viewed as someone who can focus on permitting and other issues, now that the organizational overhaul is largely finished.

Both Watson and his counterpart heading the offshore energy bureau, Tommy Beaudreau, have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting with key lawmakers, including those from the Gulf Coast and Alaska, as well as those who sit on committees that oversee drilling.