Gulf oil spill: Judge won’t budge on deep-water drilling moratorium

A federal judge said Thursday that he will not reconsider his decision to overturn a six month deep-water drilling moratorium stemming from the Gulf oil spill. That means Interior Secretary Ken Salazar might need to look for a Plan B.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted June 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm EDT

The New Orleans federal judge who on Wednesday struck down the Obama administration’s six-week moratorium on deep-water drilling refused a government request to delay that decision Thursday.

It is the latest in a series of setbacks for the administration, which imposed the suspension on May 27, about a month after the Gulf oil spill began. The goal was to give investigators time to understand what caused the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout and to propose solutions.

The Interior Department has said it will appeal the decision, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is also being forced to consider other means to salvage the moratorium, and experts suggest the fastest and perhaps simplest way would be to revise the moratorium itself.

Judge Martin Feldman said Thursday that he refused to delay his decision for the same reasons he overruled the moratorium it in the first place: The Interior Department did not “explicitly justify” the need for the temporary suspension in its report on the subject.

The moratorium, Judge Feldman said, was “blanket, generic, indeed punitive.”

In addition, the judge was troubled by the fact that the seven engineering experts who reviewed the report did not recommend a moratorium.

The Interior Department has 30 days to comply with the ruling. The Obama administration plans to appeal the ruling to the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The faster way of salvaging the moratorium, however, would be rewrite it to address the judge’s concerns – something the Interior Department is considering.

In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Secretary Salazar said he would be looking at how the ban “might be refined.”

He suggested that a moratorium could distinguish between ventures that are exploratory in nature and those where more of the variables are known, such as the oil pressure pushing up from the reservoir.

Central to such a rewrite would be showing that the department seriously considered the suspension’s impact on the local economy and that it was peer reviewed by experts who could support the findings in a courtroom, says Jack Beermann, a law professor at Boston University School of Law.

“The government had some serious problems with how they presented the reasoning for the moratorium,” says Mr. Beermann. “It was a little bit misleading – to say you have the experts’ views but once you get into the situation and don’t have the experts behind you, the judge is going to raise an eyebrow.”

Beermann says a new report reviewed by a new set of experts will give the government a second try, which would put the pressure back on the petroleum industry.

“They would have to go in and get the thing thrown out,” he says.

Others suggest that a revised moratorium would be more likely to succeed – and more effective – if it was based more on the public good than on science or engineering.

That would entail laying out more clearly why stepping back from drilling for six months is necessary to both safety and crucial regulatory reforms, says Peter Jacques, an expert in oceanic policy at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

“Prudent decisions … have to be based on public interest, especially in the midst of an unprecedented catastrophe,” Mr. Jacques says. “At this point it gives us the opportunity to reconsider what our political values are as a community.

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