Scott Angelle

Scott Angelle

In the aftermath of the BP oil spill, Scott Angelle's experience in Washington as a leading voice against the federal deepwater drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration offered him a glimpse into the federal culture that one day he'd set out to change.

"It was abundantly clear that there was a bias against the energy industry, that for anybody who was seeking hydrocarbons and bringing them to the marketplace, there just was no fit there. There was disdain. There was almost hatred for it, I found," Angelle recalled in 2015.

Last week, a collective sigh of relief could almost literally be heard throughout Louisiana's hard-hit energy sector when President Donald Trump tapped Angelle to head the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a branch of the U.S. Interior Department that regulates offshore drilling.

In his new role, the Breaux Bridge native will help craft Trump's vision for an "energy revolution," which proposes accelerating the permitting process for oil and gas exploration on federal lands and potentially new drilling in U.S. Arctic waters.

Angelle has spent nearly three decades in Louisiana government, including eight years at the helm of the state's Department of Natural Resources, where he oversaw oil and gas, coastal restoration and protection, and mineral resource issues.

After three years of slumping oil prices that have led to thousands of job losses, Angelle now is tasked with striking a balance between Trump's pledge to reduce the drilling industry's regulatory costs and the need to protect workers' safety and the environment.

"Regulatory reform doesn't mean relaxing safety standards," he said.

Angelle is the agency's fourth director since it was established after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire in April 2010 and exploded about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 men and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

After the BP spill, the former Minerals Management Service was reorganized into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which itself was later broken into two agencies, including the one that Angelle now leads.

Once the federal moratorium was lifted in late 2010, the agency continued to draw criticism from many Republican lawmakers and energy executives for what they considered to be the slow pace at which new drilling permits were being issued.

Though his new job is based in Washington, Angelle said he plans to spend "a lot more time than my predecessors" out in the field.

In an interview, he worked to portray himself as a "change agent" who will realign a bureau that he said has become too focused on red tape rather than the country's bigger economic picture. He said he plans to consider the views of many stakeholders, from industry leaders to environmental groups and oil-patch workers themselves, a group that he believes was marginalized by the Obama administration.

"Obviously, I live in the area that believes very strongly about the value of offshore production to the American economy, and we'll be engaging those folks," he said.

Throughout last year's presidential campaign, some of Trump's most ardent support came from the energy industry, as officials praised his vision for fostering a friendlier business climate. That included rolling back new restrictions imposed in the aftermath of the BP spill, which they said added new costs just when the industry was suffering economically.

Oil prices have plunged since hitting $115 per barrel in June 2014, and federal forecasters see little relief in sight. Brent crude prices are expected to average $53 per barrel in 2017 and $57 in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Trump already has taken steps to pare back regulations, and last month he instructed the U.S. Interior Department to reconsider rules that would adjust some aspects of drilling operations and that targeted changes to some equipment that failed during the BP disaster.

While Angelle declined to specify what regulations in particular may be headed for the chopping block — it was only his second day on the job — he said that many of the newer ones, including the so-called well control rule, would be given close scrutiny.

"We'll certainly be taking a look at that and determining what kind of new rule-making activity we might need to be able to streamline," he said.

That's welcome news to many in the industry, who have bemoaned the Obama-era regulations as overly burdensome. In addition, a 2016 study by Wood Mackenzie, a business research firm, predicted that annual exploratory drilling would be cut by as much as 55 percent, although that estimate envisioned a scenario in which oil was at $80 a barrel.

For his part, Angelle is seeking to find a middle ground.

"We don't have to either have robust production or safe drilling," he said. "We can have both, and I'm going to make that my No. 1 responsibility."

Angelle earned his bachelor's degree in petroleum land management at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before getting started in public office.

During a nearly three-decade career, he's held a variety of posts: parish president; interim lieutenant governor during the response to the BP oil spill; former Gov. Bobby Jindal's legislative liaison; and chairman of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, telecommunications and intrastate trucking.

At the Department of Natural Resources, he said, he helped reform the state’s coastal permitting system to make it more efficient, which helped Louisiana's drilling rig count grow by more than 150 percent during his tenure.

In Angelle's view, the federal agency he's inherited has "an extremely high value on safety and very little regard for economic activity, and rather than lowering one, I will raise both to the same level."

"We're not going to sacrifice safety," he said. "We're not going to sacrifice environmental safeguards, but we're going to embrace a culture that says we can do all of those things."

However, Angelle has drawn flak in the past from some environmentalists and others for his close ties to the industry.

During Angelle's 2015 run for governor, a race eventually won by John Bel Edwards, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a fellow Republican, ran attack ads labeling Angelle "Sinkhole Scott," tying him to a frustration expressed by some Assumption Parish residents, who blamed Angelle for not acting sooner to help mitigate the impact of the Bayou Corne sinkhole.

Over the course of years, the sinkhole swelled to more than 30 acres. But Angelle noted that he resigned from his Department of Natural Resources post only a few days after the hole emerged in 2012, contending that he had already been planning a run for the Public Service Commission seat.

In an interview, Angelle defended his brief role in the episode, saying it wasn't under his jurisdiction. It was the commissioner of conservation, in fact, who had "the absolute authority to regulate the issue that happened over there at that event," he said, declining to even use the word "sinkhole," but adding that state law prevented him from "exercising any jurisdiction over that matter."

Though some residents blamed him regardless, Angelle's perspective jives with at least one local official who was involved in the response.

"We know a whole lot more now, but at that time, no one knew really what was happening," said John Boudreaux, Assumption Parish's homeland security director.

At an industry conference in Pittsburgh last year, Trump said the country is sitting on a “treasure trove of untapped energy” and boasted that clearing away regulatory hurdles — as Angelle will have a hand in doing — would mean “more jobs, more revenues, more wealth, higher wages, and lower energy prices.”

His role in that effort is not lost on Angelle.

"This is big stuff, and it affects a lot of families, and it affects the nation's economy," he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.