Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday urged a federal appeals court to keep the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in place while government and industry experts struggle to contain the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In court papers released ahead of Thursday's hearing by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the administration warned that the moratorium was urgent now that hurricane season could disrupt containment and cleanup of the oil gushing from the April 20 undersea well blowout that doomed the Deepwater Horizon rig.
U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman struck down the moratorium June 22, agreeing with drilling-support companies that it threatened economic harm in the gulf region. Feldman said the government had failed to show adequate justification for the drilling halt at wells not already producing oil. The moratorium had stopped exploratory drilling at 33 sites in the gulf.
The administration's appeal to the 5th Circuit reiterated arguments for halting new drilling, noting that an additional spill would overwhelm disaster response.
"The Deepwater Horizon accident's catastrophic impacts justify Interior's response because the harm from a potential second incident is inestimable (particularly where most cleanup resources are already devoted to the current spill)," the government argued.
The government brief noted that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar moratorium after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, even though the risk of another accident then wasn't thought to be acute.
But lawyers for the drilling-support companies urged the appeals court to reject the government's request for an emergency stay of Feldman's ruling. Feldman correctly deemed the moratorium invalid for its failure to "justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the gulf region and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country," wrote attorney Carl D. Rosenblum on behalf of Hornbeck Offshore Services and other parties.
A blanket moratorium fails to distinguish between "the rig with the most modern safety protections and practices and the industry laggard," Rosenblum wrote.
Hornbeck's attorneys said the government had failed to provide the facts, data or analysis behind the decision to suspend drilling by floating rigs to depths greater than 500 feet.
The government argued in its filing that suspension was necessary while 22 new safety measures are implemented and others developed.
The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives the Interior Department the authority to suspend drilling or revoke leases on operations that will "probably harm" the environment and human health, wrote the department's solicitor, Hilary C. Tompkins. The department reiterated Wednesday that it would issue a new directive limiting deep-water drilling soon, and that it would notify the court when that revised moratorium is imposed.
The decision to halt new drilling for six months "was a rational exercise, under emergency circumstances," the government argued. It said Feldman's court "was wrong to substitute its judgment for Interior's."
The 5th Circuit panel agreed to expedite the stay request, but it was unclear when the judges would rule. Feldman's order gave the administration three weeks to comply, so the appeals court ruling will probably come in the week before that deadline.
Moratorium opponents have the support of some leading gulf-area politicians, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat. They have voiced support for lifting the moratorium on grounds that drilling is vital to the state's $3-billion-a-year oil operations.