Interview: Kevin Sligh Sr., Director, BSEE

BSEE Gears Up for Offshore Wind Oversight

After his first year on the job, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Kevin Sligh Sr. discusses with Offshore Engineer the myriad challenges and opportunities ahead for offshore energy development in the U.S. While the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) handles the leasing side and permitting side, BSEE now owns the engineering reviews. With a sharp focus on safety, enforcement and compliance on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), Sligh and his team eye the challenges and opportunities in building out offshore wind to the targeted 30GW of offshore wind power by 2030 and another 15GW from floating wind by 2035.

By Greg Trauthwein

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How do you see the U.S. offshore energy production changing today, and what are some of the key safety and environmental concerns from the BSEE'S perspective?

Director Sligh: The first few [Offshore Wind] projects’ Construction Operation Plan (COP) were approved by BOEM years ago, and we're starting to look at those engineering reports. The COP is the envelope of what could be built from a turbine and electrical substation facility off the coast. And now we're getting into what they really want to put on the OCS, as in a few years technology changes, from the monopiles to the supporting beam to the blade sizes. Now we're taking a harder look to make sure that the plans are sound and structurally safe before we give a no objection.

We are committed to this administration's 30 by '30, which is 30GW (of offshore wind power) by 2030, and then 15GW by 2035 for floating offshore wind. We are learning as fast, and while I don't want to say we're building an airplane while we're flying, we're close to it, and we are exceeding our expectations on these first few projects.

What challenge does BSEE’s responsibilities on offshore wind bring to the organization, and how is regulating offshore wind energy different compared to your usual work in the offshore oil and gas sector?

Director Sligh: While we are the lead for safety and environmental enforcement and compliance, BOEM is responsible for the leasing and the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] work that goes on.

So in conjunction, we are both leads; we just have our respective lanes. Now that the split has occurred, we are coordinating reviews. Those FDR [Facility Design Report] and FIR [Fabrication and Installation Report] reviews are being coordinated between BSEE and BOEM. We've brought on the Army Corps of Engineers and their engineering expertise to help us do the facility design and facility installation reviews moving forward. As offshore wind ramps up and Congress has provided us personnel to do the work, we're in the process of a huge hiring phase, hiring new engineers to be able to do the work and also building out and creating standard operating procedures and notice the lessees to make sure that we're as transparent as possible in communicating with industry.

[Looking at how oil and gas differs from offshore wind], I think they are different risk profiles, and in the future, I will flag carbon sequestration, as we're currently working on a rule with BOEM to figure that piece from a regulatory standpoint. [While offshore oil and gas and offshore wind] are different risk profiles, ultimately, it’s all about trying to deliver energy for our country.

I’ve challenged my team to say, ‘Hey, we need to really get our arms wrapped around these safety standards.’ We don’t need one company like Equinor or Ørsted or Dominion working on their own. We need to have consensus-based safety standards that will then be incorporated by reference back into our new 285 Reg that we anticipate we’ll be putting out a notice of proposed rulemaking by the end of the year. Kevin Sligh Sr., Director, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)

How does BSEE see offshore wind energy developing in the coming five years?

Director Sligh: Great question, Greg. Within the next five years, we're expecting approximately 24-25 offshore wind projects on 19 leases to be in commercial operations or the late construction phase.

By 2028, we’ll be up to almost 2,000 turbines on the OCS on those 19 leases, along with 44 electrical substations offshore.

Think of the floating production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of California, 44 of those alone off the east coast [with more to come on the west coast and Gulf of Mexico]. With that, this administration is focusing on high-paying union jobs and skilled positions to be able to build out all of the different needs that are going to occur on the OCS. We're going to stimulate local economies.

What do you see as the primary challenges to having offshore wind energy develop as you envision?

Director Sligh: This industry's been around for a long time; onshore here domestically, offshore internationally. There's a lot of regulatory insights that the international community can bring to bear and help us out with. But I go back to my Coast Guard and FEMA emergency management roots; it's coming up with consensus-based safety standards. That's going to be the challenge.

You have different entities … American Clean Power … American Petroleum Institute … the Offshore Operators Committee here in the U.S., and other organizations that are all working on their own standards. I’ve challenged my team to say, ‘Hey, we need to really get our arms wrapped around these safety standards.’ We don’t need one company like Equinor or Ørsted or Dominion working on their own. We need to have consensus-based safety standards that will then be incorporated by reference back into our new 285 Reg that we anticipate we’ll be putting out a notice of proposed rulemaking by the end of the year.

Staying on that safety note, can you describe BSEE's process for conducting inspections of offshore energy production activities and specifically how it ensures adherence to those safety regulations?

Director Sligh: In the case of [offshore] oil and gas, we have about 120 BSEE inspectors that go out on the road to the Gulf of Mexico, to the west coast, and to Alaska to conduct risk-based inspections.

We’re in the nascent stages of building out what that's going to look like for offshore wind. Do we need that many inspectors to fly out to these turbines? I don't think so. Do we need inspectors to be able to go onto these electrical substations? Of course.

So right now, we’re working on an inspections program for offshore wind … an inspections program to make sure that the OCS as it relates to offshore wind, oil and gas, and in the future, carbon sequestration, stays as safe as possible.

What do you see as some of the technological advancements that BSEE is currently looking at to improve the safety and environmental protection in offshore energy production?

Director Sligh: Technological advancements can stem from various operations engaged by a production facility. Initiatives can span from routine activities, such as accessing a vessel/tank for cleaning and inspection through cameras/devices to serve as visual aids and to eliminate confined space hazards for personnel, or non-routine activities, such as enhancements for monitoring subsea wells to clearly and definitively observe pressure fluctuations that indicate potential leaks to highly specialized project requiring specialized technical abilities, such as High Pressure – High Temperature projects to new technologies available to address oil spills, such as the Low-Emission Spray Crude Oil Combustor technology [also known as the BSEE Burner].

BSEE's Environmental Compliance Program (ECP) works with BOEM OCS resource leads to assess improved methodologies/new technologies intended to decrease/negate environmental impacts during offshore operations. Examples include the bureaus' coordination with NOAA and NASA on the use of satellites for OCS emissions and discharge detection to help identify chronic violators and assist in inspections, and work with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on equipment/methodologies that could be employed during construction/decommissioning operations to reduce noise (pressure-waves/acoustic energy) and potential impacts on Marine Protected Species. 

BSEE ECP also proposes, helps fund, and participates in research led by BOEM's Environmental Studies Program (ESP) that focuses on detection, monitoring, and control devices that could be used to improve environmental protections during OCS energy operations.

What do you see as some of the challenges that the offshore energy industry as a whole will face in the coming years, and how is BSEE preparing to meet those challenges?

Director Sligh: The offshore environment is dynamic with certain inherent risks. The offshore energy industry, whether conventional oil and gas or offshore wind, has been at the forefront of advancing technologies, and our continued ability to keep pace with those advances is critical. To do this, we must continue to attract a diverse, talented workforce with skills and expertise in both conventional and renewable energy operations. At the same time, our sister agency, BOEM, has provided incentives, through recent offshore wind lease sales, to the offshore wind industry to provide for workforce training and supply chain development as they work to develop their leases.

What are some of the cybersecurity challenges that the offshore energy industry faces, and specifically, what is BSEE doing to address these challenges?

Director Sligh: Last summer when I came on board, GAO [U.S. Government Accountability Office] sent out a report with some recommendations for BSEE to take a look at offshore oil and gas from a cybersecurity perspective.

We're at the point now where we're actively building out a cyber strategy here in BSEE as it pertains to being a regulator.

The industry players maintain their own systems, and we’re starting to make visits to some of the industry players down in Houston to take a look at their Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to understand what they're using and ensuring that they have adequate resources to handle cyber.

I think industry knows it and gets it. There may be a few players out there, a few of the [mid- and small-sized] entities which I'm more concerned about. But from what I'm seeing, oil and gas companies understand the threat and the risk.

Looking at offshore wind, these electrical substations are going to be connected to the grid. So we're also talking to offshore wind developers about their connections to the grid; their infrastructure concerns.

Can you discuss BSEE's efforts to train and equip its workforce? I know you talked about staffing up, but do you have enough people to manage the workload?

Director Sligh: We're growing, Greg. Our most valuable asset is our workforce, our team players, and everything that we can do to get everything that they need is critical. We also have something called the National Offshore Technical Center (NOTC) which produces about 23,000 contact hours per year on training, and it's everything from oil and gas to offshore wind, and now, too, even carbon sequestration.

For the full interview with BSEE Director Kevin Sligh Sr., watch the full interview here:

Editor’s Note: The proceeded is a compilation of both Offshore Engineer’s video interview with BSEE Director Kevin Sligh Sr. and written responses to questions via email. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

March - April 2023