The Obama administration's top regulator for offshore drilling plans to resign by this fall, creating another high-level vacancy at the Interior Department as the administration continues its second term.
James Watson, who has been director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement since December 2011, will serve as president of the Americas division of the marine classification firm American Bureau of Shipping.
Watson will work from the firm's Houston headquarters beginning Sept. 2.
In an email this morning to bureau employees, Watson described the ABS post as "the perfect job for me as a naval architect and marine safety professional."
"I will miss BSEE dearly," Watson wrote. "You have become a part of my professional life I'll never forget. I hope I have made some positive impact on you as well. It certainly feels like we have accomplished a lot together."
Watson's resignation comes as BSEE and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management craft new regulations to strengthen the safety of drilling in the Arctic and as BSEE enforces tough new rules to ensure workplace safety. It is also working to update standards for blowout preventers, the critical last line of defense to stop an oil spill.
Watson said he and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will be working this summer to ensure a smooth transition. His position does not require Senate confirmation.
"Director Watson has served with distinction and has helped implement the most aggressive and comprehensive offshore oil and gas regulatory reforms in the nation's history," Jewell said in a statement. "His commitment to safety at all levels and at all times will have deep and meaningful benefits for the men and women of America's offshore industry who continue to help fuel our domestic energy future."
During his tenure, permitting times for deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico were reduced more than 40 percent, from 83 days to 47 days, according to Interior. Over that same time, the number of deepwater floating rigs in the Gulf rose by 46 percent, the agency said.
But in an interview last year, Watson said his goal was always to provide certainty to industry, rather than faster permitting times (Greenwire, March 16, 2012).
"Our measure is to try to get to be more predictable, based on the complexity and risk of each application," Watson, a retired Coast Guard admiral, said in March 2012. "Industry will be able to have a pretty good sense of how long it's going to take."
Watson's term at BSEE was marked by far less political turmoil than that of his predecessor, Michael Bromwich, who led the most significant overhaul of offshore drilling oversight in Interior's history, which included tough new standards for oil spill containment. As a trained maritime engineer, Watson earned early plaudits from the offshore firms he regulated and their representatives in Congress.
National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi said he was disappointed at the news of Watson's resignation.
"Director Watson took the time to understand the offshore energy industry and was always willing to meet with industry members to discuss mutual issues and concerns," Luthi said. "We look forward to working with the next BSEE director and are hopeful that he or she will continue an active, effective and productive dialogue with the offshore industry."
Watson had previously served as the federal on-scene coordinator in summer 2010 during the BP PLC oil spill.
Prior to that, Watson led the Coast Guard's oversight of commercial vessel safety and security, ports and cargo safety and security, and maritime investigations.
ABS Chairman Christopher Wiernicki lauded Watson's experience promoting safety at multiple levels of the federal government.
"Jim's background makes him uniquely qualified for this position working alongside both the marine and offshore industries," Wiernicki said in a statement. "Jim's understanding of the critical safety issues the offshore sector is facing today will enable ABS to enhance the level of service we are able to provide to government and industry."
For more than 150 years, the nonprofit ABS has certified ships and professional maritime competency, Watson said.
Watson said he was particularly proud of BSEE's "safety at all levels, and all times" mantra.
"I truly believe BSEE walks the talk for safety in the offshore oil and gas industry," he said. "The challenge of doing safety and pollution prevention is you never really know how many lives and spills you saved. You just have to believe in your mission and your proficiency at succeeding in what you set out to do."
Watson was also credited with implementing BSEE's final drilling safety rule, for establishing a nonregulatory safety culture policy and for verifying the ability of the Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix Well Containment Group to successfully deploy oil spill capping stacks.
Interior did not indicate when it plans to name a successor.
Other high-level vacancies at Interior include deputy secretary and assistant secretary for land and mineral management, both of which oversee Watson's post. There is also no confirmed director of the Bureau of Land Management or assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.