Obama administration names new offshore drilling regulator

The Obama administration is once again tapping a Coast Guard veteran to be the nation’s next chief offshore drilling regulator.

Former Coast Guard Vice Adm. Brian Salerno will take over as director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement later this month, according to an e-mail sent Wednesday to employees at the Interior Department agency. Salerno is set to succeed former Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, who has directed the bureau since December 2011.

“Brian is an accomplished professional who brings proven expertise in maritime safety and emergency response to the job,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in the e-mailed announcement. “As we continue the vital work of ensuring safe and responsible offshore energy development, Brian’s experience, vision, leadership and qualifications could not be more important.”

Salerno is no stranger to offshore oil and gas issues, having been part of the Coast Guard’s response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

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In the wake of the accident, he frequently testified on Capitol Hill about how the government would respond to oil spills in U.S. territory and neighboring international waters. And as a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Ocean Studies Board, Salerno evaluated how to tackle oil spills in Arctic waters.

He also served as the incident commander during hurricanes, oil spills and maritime transportation accidents.

Former drilling regulator Michael Bromwich, who worked with Salerno on the Interior Department and Coast Guard’s investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, praised the pick.

“I found him to be highly competent, extremely professional, and a person of integrity,” said Bromwich, the first safety bureau director, who now is a consultant in Washington, D.C. “He knows full well the continuing challenges facing the agency, and the importance of making sure that offshore drilling is appropriately regulated and existing regulations vigorously enforced.”

Salerno’s most recent position at the Coast Guard was deputy commandant for operations, a role that had him managing a workforce of 750 people.

More recently, Salerno has advised the Interior Department and safety bureau on communications, other issues and how to coordinate and manage responsibilities that overlapped with the Coast Guard. The safety bureau and Coast Guard recently inked memorandums sorting out their relationship overseeing drill ships and other offshore oil and gas facilities, in a bid to clarify how safety programs and other operations will be monitored.

As part of that process, oil and gas companies and offshore service firms met with Salerno on the Coast Guard and safety bureau’s shared oversight of offshore operations. A representative in one of those meetings said Salerno asked questions with depth and displayed good knowledge of the offshore industry.

Randall Luthi, the head of the National Ocean Industries Association, said Salerno brings “a solid background in offshore issues” to his new job. Luthi noted that Salerno has met “with many industry leaders during his tenure as a special adviser . . . and we look forward to continuing our working relationship with him.”

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Jewell praised Salerno’s “lifetime of dedication to industry safety and the environmental impacts of offshore oil and gas activity.”

In a news release announcing the move, Salerno said he would continue “important work of ensuring that offshore operations are safe, secure and environmentally sound.”

“I recognize the great strides that the department has made over the past years, and I look forward to continuing that progress, working in close contact with our partners across government and industry,” he said.

Because Congress has not passed legislation formalizing the bureau or making the director a Senate-confirmable position, Salerno can quickly assume the job.

It is not clear how Salerno’s appointment might affect the timeline for looming new proposals to tighten performance standards on critical emergency equipment known as blowout preventers and production systems used offshore. Those new mandates were on track to be formally proposed later this year.

Salerno is set to take his new safety bureau role on Aug. 26, effectively becoming the third director in the bureau’s three-year history. It was created in response to the 2010 oil spill, when the Obama administration ordered the former Minerals Management Service divided into three agencies.

Salerno’s predecessor, Watson, is set to take over as president and chief operating officer for the Americas division of the maritime classification society ABS. He will stay at the bureau until the end of August.

During his tenure, Watson presided over the implementation of broad new rules requiring oil and gas companies to holistically assess and mitigate risks offshore and then subject those safety programs to regular audits.

Watson also continued the bureau’s aggressive stance toward penalizing offshore contractors and service firms for violations on the outer continental shelf. That strategy, first adopted under Bromwich, moved regulators beyond their traditional laser-like focus on policing just the oil and gas companies operating offshore.

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