Interior’s drilling chief brings know-how, ‘apolitical’ approach to the job

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was seeking a leader for the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, he wanted someone tough enough to handle the hardball politics of offshore drilling.

“The reality of it is there are some people in this Congress who play politics with some very serious issues,” Salazar said in late September. “And it’s very important that in this kind of an agency that you have someone who is very strong and can call the balls and strikes.”

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James Watson appears to fit the bill. 

He took the helm of the new Interior agency after a distinguished U.S. Coast Guard career and says the winning move in the capital’s political games is not to play.

Asked what prepares him for the political aspects of the job, the former rear admiral replied, “That I am not a politician.”

“I have no political affiliation, really,” he said in an interview at Interior’s hulking headquarters in Washington. “I answer to [Salazar] and the president, but I am a guy that, like many military officers, I think, is apolitical.”

Watson, for the record, doesn’t appear to think his political temperament (or lack thereof) had much to do with his selection to run BSEE, an agency created in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill that laid bare longstanding problems with offshore oversight.

“I thought [Salazar] … chose me for my interest in safety and my engineering background and my experience in oil spill response, and running the policy program over in Coast Guard that is closely related,” Watson told The Hill in mid-July.

Thus far Watson, who took over in December, hasn’t faced the same level of attacks from Republicans and the oil industry that were directed at his predecessor, Michael Bromwich.

“I have traveled with Adm. Watson when we went out to a drillship in the Gulf of Mexico, and had an opportunity to not only talk to him, but observe him as he talked and listened to others, and I am impressed with him,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Watson understands the industry,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an oil industry ally and offshore drilling advocate. “The complaints [from industry] have gone down significantly.”

But Watson is sure to take heat at times, given the charged politics of drilling.

Watson will find himself under fire from the left this summer if he approves permits for Royal Dutch Shell to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast, which appears likely. 

Environmentalists bitterly oppose Shell’s plans, and call Arctic drilling unsafe despite Watson’s assurances that BSEE is rigorously inspecting Shell’s equipment and will monitor the project closely.

“The decisions Director Watson makes could be the difference between a functioning Arctic Ocean and one severely damaged by a spill,” said Michael Levine, an attorney with the environmental group Oceana.

Watson, an engineer by training, brings a long and well-traveled Coast Guard career in marine safety to BSEE, or “Bessie,” the agency that now handles permitting, inspections, spill response standards and other aspects of offshore drilling safety.

“I was attracted because it allowed me to do a lot of the same things at a point in my life when I wasn’t going to be able to continue doing what I feel strongly about in the Coast Guard, which is marine safety,” Watson said about his decision to take the job.

It’s a role that puts Watson in charge of a startup of sorts — albeit one with a $182 million budget and 670 employees.

The Obama administration overhauled and renamed Interior’s long-troubled Minerals Management Service in the wake of the 2010 BP disaster.

The overhaul wasn’t completed until last October, when BSEE and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which handles offshore energy leasing and other matters, launched as separate organizations.

For Watson, it’s a serious mission.

“We take so much for granted when we live in communities onshore that have police departments. And fire departments. And you can just run out of your house and get away from a fire. You can’t do that on a drill rig or ship, and so that is where I have made my mark in government and in life, really, is to try and take what I have been able to learn through formal education and through experiences and try and make it a little bit safer and better for people offshore,” Watson said.

Before coming to Interior, Watson was the Guard’s director of prevention policy for marine safety, security and stewardship, and has also served as deputy commander of the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command, among other high-level positions over the years.

Watson’s résumé includes working in Washington, D.C., on the structural engineering for the salvage and transit of the crippled Exxon Valdez tanker, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

He has also worked on the response to more recent accidents, including the 2007 spill in San Francisco Bay.

And then, the big one: the BP spill that began in April 2010.

Watson was the designated federal on-scene coordinator on June 1, 2010, giving him a leading role as BP and the government struggled to cap a gushing well and contain the spill.

He says the government, in the BP response, was far ahead of where it was in the Valdez spill thanks to the so-called Incident Command System that has been adopted in the wake of the Alaskan disaster.

“I think we were worlds ahead, with Deepwater Horizon, of where we were as a community of responders during the Exxon Valdez. There was just a whole lot of things that exceeded all of the planning expectations in the Deepwater Horizon, but at least we had people that spoke the same language,” Watson said.

And now Interior — and Watson — say they are committed to fixing gaps in industry response and federal oversight that became apparent during the spill.

Interior has already acted on several fronts, issuing tougher safety and spill-response requirements, and more are on the way, including new standards for subsea blowout preventers.

“All of the reports that have been done since the Deepwater Horizon have clearly identified those gaps, those things that we had not thought about, technologies that we need to have to deal with a spill coming from a source a mile deep under pressure from a geological reservoir,” he said.

“When you look at my agenda, you will see a bias toward filling those gaps,” said Watson, who holds master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, naval architecture and strategic studies.

Watson’s experience with the Coast Guard, which shares oversight of offshore drilling rigs with Interior, is poised to pay off. The Guard and BSEE have already inked a formal agreement on their roles in oil spill preparation and response, and Watson said there’s more to come.

“I think there is more that we can do on the prevention side, and I am working very, very hard to do that,” he said. “We are going to be working on some initiatives both operationally and with policymaking that still need to come to full fruition.”