Salazar, despite court setback, defends deepwater moratorium

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, June 23 – US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said a 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling that he imposed on May 27 was justified and announced that the US Department of the Interior would appeal a federal judge’s June 22 order blocking it.

“We see clear evidence every day, as oil spills from BP's well, of the need for a pause on deepwater drilling,” he said.

Salazar said he plans to issue a new order “in the coming days that eliminates any doubt that a moratorium is needed, appropriate, and within our authorities.”

US District Judge Martin Feldman issued a preliminary injunction against the moratorium in a civil case filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services Co. of Covington, La., and other offshore service companies against Salazar (OGJ Online, June 22, 2009). He made his ruling a day after hearing arguments on the case in New Orleans.

Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation applauded Feldman’s decision.

“I strongly urge the Obama administration not to appeal his ruling,” said US Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat. “The administration should instead implement the recommendations that I and numerous other leaders and experts from the Gulf Coast have proposed–all of which would result in demonstrably safer offshore practices without the devastating impact of this blanket moratorium on new drilling.”

The state’s other US senator, Republican David Vitter, applauded Feldman’s decision, which he said “recognizes that the president's powers are certainly not unlimited and that this moratorium is wreaking havoc on jobs in Louisiana.”

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who is running to unseat Vitter in November, said the ruling was encouraging news for tens of thousands of Louisianans whose jobs depend on the oil and gas industry. “But as long as the administration is appealing the decision, the future of energy production in the gulf remains unclear,” he said.

Another US House member from Louisiana, Bill Cassidy (R), said Feldman’s ruling realigns federal policy with the findings of independent scientists and engineers who objected to the moratorium. Cassidy, who recently introduced legislation to repeal the moratorium, said his bill has 46 cosponsors, including all of Louisiana’s House members.

The decision
In his decision, Feldman noted that Salazar, in the executive summary of his May 27 report to US President Barack Obama, said his recommendations for a 6-month halt to deepwater drilling in the gulf “have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.”

But five of the National Academy of Engineering experts and three others subsequently stated publicly that they did not agree with a 6-month blanket moratorium, the decision continued. “They envisioned a more limited kind of moratorium, but a blanket moratorium was added after final review, they complain, and was never agreed to by them,” it said.

The draft the experts reviewed, for example, recommended a moratorium for wells in more than 1,000 ft of water—not 500 ft, as Salazar’s order stated—to allow for implementation of suggested safety measures, Feldman wrote in his ruling.

He said Salazar’s report seems to define deep water as 1,000 ft or more and doesn’t mention a 500-ft depth. Yet the notice to lessees “suddenly defines ‘deepwater’ as more than 500 ft,” the order said.

“While the implementation of regulations and a new culture of safety are supportable by the report and the documents presented, the blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 ft also universally present an imminent danger,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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