The Interior Department’s top offshore drilling safety regulator isn’t backing away from his predecessor’s plan to extend enforcement of drilling safety rules to contractors (as opposed to just the oil companies themselves).

The plan has drawn some GOP criticism.

But James Watson, in an interview with The Houston Chronicle, said the extension of enforcement to contractors will boost safety, and also vowed to keep an open line of communication with the companies.

“I believe 100 percent there’s no question about our authority to apply our rules and our regs to the contractors. I think it’s just a question of how that’s going to be implemented. I’m not a ‘gotcha’ guy. I want to do this in a very deliberate way, in a very open way, with a lot of conversations with the contractor community,” he told the paper at an offshore drilling technology conference in Houston.

“We will be very deliberate about using that authority. But I think it’s going to make a difference in safety,” Watson said.

Interior, in response to the BP oil spill, has issued violation notices not only to BP itself, but to Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton, which handled the cement job on the ill-fated Macondo well.

Michael Bromwich, who was Watson’s predecessor, decided that more broadly it doesn’t make sense to limit enforcement of drilling safety standards to oil companies themselves.

“We will [go after contractors] in a select number of cases when the behavior by the contractor or the service company strikes us as extremely egregious and where going just against the operators strikes us as silly and misguided,” Bromwich said last year.

Bromwich oversaw the post-spill overhaul of Interior’s troubled offshore drilling arm before leaving late last year. He has since formed a strategic consulting firm.

Watson, in the interview with the Chronicle, hit similar notes.

“We’re not planning to let the operators off the hook by any means. They are still responsible. What we are going to do is we are going to apply our skills at investigations and inspections to whether or not there should be improvements made among the contractors,” he said.

Elsewhere in the interview, Watson discusses his overall approach to offshore drilling oversight — an area that has become much higher-profile since the 2010 BP disaster.

Asked how he will measure success, Watson replied:

“I’m not going to measure it by INCs [incidents of non-compliance], and I’m not going to measure it by number of permits and how long it takes to issue them. I am going to measure it by the number of incidents that occur that shouldn’t occur.”

In the interview and his prepared remarks at the conference, Watson discusses plans for the next round of regulations, including finalizing drilling safety rules that were issued on an “emergency” basis in the fall of 2010, and new requirements for the subsea blowout preventers.

From Watson’s speech:

The Drilling Safety Rule contained a number of provisions related to blowout preventers, but the various investigations on the Deepwater Horizon, in particular the ones from the National Academy of Engineers and the BSEE-U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team, highlighted a number of additional issues with BOPs — arguably the most critical piece of safety and well control equipment on a rig — that need to be addressed. This is a rule that I believe is much needed, and we will work deliberately toward getting a draft rule published. This is an area where we will need active involvement from both those in the industry as well as other stakeholder organizations as we work on crafting this proposal. Therefore, on May 22, in Washington, D.C., we are going to host an all-day public forum to discuss BOPs and how we can continue to improve their reliability and safety. We are inviting experts from around the country to participate in panel discussions, and I am looking forward to an open and candid dialogue.

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