Q&A: New Center for Offshore Safety Director Talks Responsibilities, Goals
John D. Siciliano
Posted May 20, 2020
Capt. Russell Holmes is the Center for Offshore Safety’s (COS) new director after serving for nearly three decades with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Holmes, who retired from the Coast Guard in 2020, takes over for Charlie Williams, who had led the center since 2012 after a long industry career. Holmes will be taking the center’s mission of offshore safety and environmental protection into its second decade of existence.
The center was created soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the COS has enhanced the safety culture in offshore operations, while supporting federal regulations that mandate Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) at all operations on the Outer Continental Shelf.
Just prior to joining the center, Holmes served as the Coast Guard’s senior point of contact for offshore safety in the Gulf, overseeing marine inspection and investigation programs that ultimately support SEMS. As he explains in the Q&A below, Holmes says the industry’s professionalism and safety commitment matched his while he was serving as one of industry’s lead regulators.
In his new role as director, Holmes wants the center to raise its profile as a safety leader by becoming more visually recognizable and active. For example, the center’s website was recently updated to make it more compelling as it provides leading information about offshore safety.
Holmes also plans new outreach efforts to better coordinate with other organizations that share the center’s focus on offshore safety. He also is supporting new efforts to attract more companies to align with the center’s efforts to further improve offshore safety.
Q: How has your Coast Guard experience prepared you to lead the Center for Offshore Safety?
Holmes: During my 27 years in the Coast Guard, my role was to ensure safety, security and environmental protection across all the different marine environments. More recently, my duties had focused primarily on the offshore environment in the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, the Center for Offshore Safety (COS) was created after the Deepwater Horizon incident occurred, where 15% of the entire Coast Guard workforce was involved with the response. In the years following the incident, I began working with the COS and have worked with the American Petroleum Institute across a number of assignments in the Coast Guard.
However, in the last two years, in my role as primary officer in charge of marine inspections in the Gulf, my work with COS has increased, along with other trade associations that focus on offshore safety and environmental protection.
In my last role, I had to work with other divisions of the Coast Guard that did not work directly under me. In that unique role, I was charged with tapping those resources, as I saw fit, to serve the safety mission in the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, I see that experience as benefitting me as COS director, because the oil companies we partner with do not technically work for COS. Instead, they help support COS through collaboration with the offshore industry and the federal regulators, as well.
Based on my previous role as a government regulator, my current role as COS director hits the sweet spot of my experience. I am able to represent the offshore industry while simultaneously possessing an excellent working relationship with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and other regulators. I have built strong relationships at BSEE, including its Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) implementation program based in Washington, D.C.
Coming into this job, I can seamlessly continue my passionate approach to ensuring offshore safety, while also being able to facilitate commerce offshore.
Q: How would you characterize your working relationship with industry while serving in the Coast Guard?
Holmes: My interactions with the oil and natural gas industry occurred on a daily basis, and I managed to gain good rapport with the offshore operators. I found the industry responsive and passionate about trying to make operations better in the Gulf of Mexico.
Working as a regulator, I had candid conversations with industry each day. Overall, I found the industry to be a committed partner with regulators to ensure their operations were made safe and always improving.
Q: Can you describe some of your daily interactions with industry?
Holmes: I would talk to industry about their tactical operations, such as lifeboat management related to construction projects, structural repairs and lifesaving policies. But those conversations would also include inspections by the Coast Guard of offshore facilities to identify safety deficiencies, including how operators were overseeing their Safety and Environmental Management System programs related to marine systems and management of change documentation.
My relationship with the industry was very good and very frank. If I needed to understand what was happening at a facility, I could always rely on the industry to give me the straight and honest truth. The good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. They were always willing to make whatever improvement was necessary to address all foreseeable risks to the environment.
The industry was always responsive to our inspectors and always professional in our interactions with them. Moreover, I found industry to be passionate about trying to make things better offshore. I found it encouraging and it made my work enjoyable that I was overseeing an industry that took their safety responsibilities as serious as I did working for the Coast Guard.
In fact, the level of commitment I experienced from the industry is one of the reasons I believe I will enjoy my role leading the COS.
Q: Please talk a little more about your focus on offshore safety and environmental protection while you were with the Coast Guard.
Holmes: I was only the second person to serve in the newly created Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI) position. That position helped to focus and centralize a lot of the authorities of the Coast Guard across the Gulf of Mexico. Before that, a number of the inspections that took place in the Gulf were carried out by numerous Coast Guard offices. So, in order to improve that situation, my role was created to be a central point of contact for the industry when it came to safety and environmental protection.
As a central point of contact we dealt with new construction occurring on the Outer Continental Shelf, looking at lifesaving equipment, looking at shutting in production if needed in order to upgrade new facilities. We also looked at learning from our mistakes, examining near-misses that occurred at facilities to improve safety performance and avoid the hazards of operations.
In that role, I believed that if one operator was experiencing an issue, the chances were likely that it was being experienced by other operators. However, we weren’t there only to identify deficiencies. We were also there to teach and learn. And would help clarify policy to the industry.
Q: What’s your outlook when it comes to protecting the environment?
Holmes:I think the industry has really grown over the years. Offshore facilities are already lowering their emissions by using natural gas to power activities. In addition, we will keep examining new ways to eliminate spills and retire or decommission offshore facilities in ways that benefit the environment and the local ecology.
It’s the totality of all the environmental aspects that I will be looking at in this new role. It is the industry’s challenge to look at its impacts holistically and take actions that will benefit the environment through innovation while keeping its workers safe. I believe we are at a point in history where industry has the expertise and knowledge to lead future safety and environmental protection efforts, and we should fully embrace that role.
Q: What do you see as the next steps for COS in its second decade?
Holmes: I have started participating in the center’s many working groups and board meetings to understand the issues facing the industry and begin planning the agenda. This week, I officially take the center’s helm, as the former director, Charlie Williams, steps aside to serve in an advisory capacity. While no one can replace Charlie, as his industry expertise and experience are unmatched, I bring a slightly different perspective coming from the regulator’s point of view.
I still have to get the lay of the land before I begin making any improvements to the center. But I would like to focus on the idea of continuous improvement, which dovetails with my academic background in manufacturing. I think continuous improvement is fundamentally what the center is focused on, and what the SEMS program is all about. I want to focus on how we can lead the industry to perform optimally and always look for ways to continually improve. I am always trying to leave somewhere better than when I got there and try to make improvements for everybody.
About The Author
John Siciliano is a writer for API Global Industry Services’ Marketing and Communications Department. He joined API after 14 years as an energy and environment reporter and editor. Most recently, he was senior energy and environment writer for the Washington Examiner and the Daily on Energy newsletter. He began full-time reporting in Washington in 2001 as a foreign affairs correspondent, also covering national security and defense. His coverage of the Mideast and Saudi Arabia led him to become a full-time energy reporter. He earned a bachelors degree in psychology from Ohio Northern University, and he also holds a Masters of Science degree in education from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.