Offshore drilling regulator moves up at Interior

WASHINGTON — An Obama administration official who oversees offshore oil leasing and helped shake up federal agencies after the Deepwater Horizon disaster is now joining Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s inner circle.

Tommy Beaudreau, currently the acting assistant secretary of land and minerals management at the Interior Department, is set to become the secretary’s chief of staff, succeeding Laura Daniel Davis, a five-year veteran of the post.

Jewell announced the move to Interior Department employees on Thursday in meetings and in an email, calling Beaudreau a “natural leader” and “a great problem solver.”

The decision is likely to cheer environmentalists as well as oil industry leaders, given that both have widely praised Beaudreau as an honest broker while presiding over contentious decisions involving offshore drilling and Arctic energy development.

It also could help smooth Jewell’s relationship with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are angry over the Interior Department’s handling of endangered species protections and other issues.

For instance, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top GOP member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has blasted the Interior Department’s decision to block construction of a road from an isolated community through a wildlife refuge in her state as “heartless.”

The King Cove road dispute first surfaced as an obstacle to Jewell’s confirmation last year, and now, it threatens to derail other assistant Interior secretary nominations pending in the Senate.

Murkowski has a good relationship with Beaudreau, a lawyer who first joined the Interior Department in June 2010 to oversee the reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

Later, he was tapped as the first director of the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which handles offshore energy leasing, and then he took over the acting assistant secretary post, putting him in the middle of major decisions involving Arctic drilling near the Alaska coast.

Beaudreau also led an Interior Department probe of Shell’s 2012 drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska, following high-profile mishaps and the grounding of its contracted Kulluk rig.

Although Beaudreau had no oil and gas experience before joining the Interior Department, he grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, while his father worked for an oil exploration company on the North Slope.

When President Barack Obama nominated Beaudreau to oversee the Interior Department’s budget and policy office last year, both offshore drilling advocates and environmentalists opposed to the development felt they were losing an ally.

“He understands Alaska,” observed Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski.

“Sen. Murkowski was concerned about his moving to the new position,” Dillon said. “She felt that he was a reasonable voice helping get things done in Alaska.”

It is hoped he will continue to play that role in his new post, Dillon said.

The chief of staff plays a largely behind-the-scenes role in every major Interior Department policy and represents the secretary in meetings with lawmakers and stakeholders.

Interior is in the midst of a number of high-profile personnel shuffles, as Jewell rounds out her leadership team after a year as secretary.

The Senate last month confirmed Michael Connor to serve as the deputy Interior secretary.

But the chamber has yet to vote on Obama’s nomination of Rhea Suh to be assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks, nor the nomination of Janice Schneider to be assistant secretary of land and minerals, the position Beaudreau had filled on an acting basis. Also awaiting a Senate vote is the president’s nomination of Neil Kornze to direct the Bureau of Land Management that oversees energy development on public lands, a position he currently fills on an acting basis.

Jewell has not yet hired anyone to head the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a position that does not require Senate confirmation.

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