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Federal monitor named for offshore drilling

Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, who ran the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, will oversee the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

November 15, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration named Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson IV, who ran the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as the new top monitor of safety and environmental practices in the offshore energy industry.

Watson is scheduled to take up his post Dec. 1 as the new director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, replacing interim director Michael Bromwich.

The Obama administration brought in Bromwich after the Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean in the country's worst offshore environmental disaster.

The spill revealed the conflicts of interest and sometimes spotty oversight that plagued the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for offshore energy development. Bromwich reorganized the service into three agencies with separate functions: revenue collection from offshore energy projects; environmental analysis and leasing of offshore blocks; and in the case of the new bureau, development and enforcement of beefed-up environmental safeguards.

Industry and environmental groups cautiously welcomed Watson's appointment, though several said they knew little about him.

"We look forward to working with Rear Adm. James A. Watson in his new position as we continue to advance safe and environmentally responsible operations, meet increasing energy demand and bolster domestic energy production while supporting millions of jobs in a time of continued global uncertainty," said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Industry.

His experience handling what began as a chaotic response to the spill left some environmentalists hopeful.

"We like that that they took someone out of the Macondo spill chaos, especially from the Coast Guard, which everyone would probably say acquitted itself very well," said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund and former chief of staff at the Energy Department. "It stands us all in good stead that he's been through something like this."

Watson's biggest challenges may come from outside the newly revamped agency. More than a year and a half after the spill, Congress has yet to allocate the funds the agency needs to boost its ranks of inspectors substantially or to pass laws that would levy stiffer penalties on companies responsible for oil spills.

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