Gulf oil spill: Judge slams Obama's drilling moratorium, blocks it

The judge said the federal report that led to the drilling moratorium didn't 'explicitly justify' a ban. Some independent engineers who reviewed the report agree. The administration will appeal.

By , Staff writer

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    The Gunnison truss spar, located in the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the drilling operations affected by the Obama administration's deep-water drilling moratorium, which took effect in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
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The US District Court in New Orleans blocked the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling Tuesday, adding to doubts about the federal report that recommended the ban.

The moratorium took effect May 27 after an Interior Department report called for a stoppage so that safety protocols could be reviewed and the cause of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent Gulf oil spill could be determined.

But in his ruling Monday, US District Court Judge Martin Feldman wrote that the report findings did not “explicitly justify the moratorium.” He added: “[the report] does not discuss any irreparable harm that would warrant a suspension of operations, it does not explain how long it would take to implement the recommended safety measures.”

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This comes as a panel of independent engineering experts who reviewed the report claim that they did not give their blessings to the moratorium. Instead, that recommendation was added after their final review, they say.

“This is not an engineering problem, it’s a management problem, and it’s BP’s management that screwed up,” says Bruce Johnson, a professor emeritus of oceanic engineering at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The moratorium “penalizes the whole industry for the mistakes of” BP management, he adds.

Obama vs. Jindal?

The White House, however, said it would appeal the decision immediately.

The legal challenge against the moratorium was brought by 12 offshore oil operators and suppliers led by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, La. The companies argued that the ban is costing the local petroleum industry between $165 million and $330 million each month in lost revenue.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal threw his weight behind the challenge, too, insisting that the moratorium would lead to at least 11,000 job losses in the state. This “helped level the playing field” against the Obama administration, says Richard Frank, executive director of the UC Berkeley Law School's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

Governor Jindal’s clout will likely matter less in the US Circuit Court of Appeals, says Mr. Frank, who is a former attorney with the US Department of Energy specializing in coastal and ocean issues. Courts “generally give the executive branch of government a fair amount of deference when responding to emergency events” and that it is likely that the next judge will give the administration “ a more favorable response.”

“I wouldn’t think the Obama administration would have to work too hard to justify the need for this type of moratorium it imposed here based on the record,” Frank says.

Questions about the report

At the heart of Judge Feldman’s ruling is the legitimacy of the Interior Department report. Upon its release, the report announced that “draft recommendations were reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering,” a non-profit institution that often acts in an advisory role to federal and state governments.

But a spokesman with the National Academy of Engineering (NEA) says the organization played “no formal role” in the report but only “informally suggested” individuals to the Interior Department for use in their report. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar met with the engineering panel Monday to hear their concerns and agreed to meet with them again in two weeks, said Interior spokesperson Kendra Barkoff.

In the meantime the Interior Department released a statement that said: “We didn’t mean to imply that [the members of the NAE] also agreed with the moratorium on deep-water drilling. We acknowledge that they were not asked to review or comment on the proposed moratorium and that they peer-reviewed the report on a technical basis.”

While engineers like Mr. Johnson are most concerned by BP management cost-cutting measures, which many in the engineering community say are responsible for the disaster, they do support a rigorous review of all the blowout preventers in the Gulf.

It has not yet been determined why or how the one below the Deepwater Horizon failed, Johnson says.

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