By Ben Geman - 06/23/10 01:09 AM EDT
A federal judge on Tuesday undercut a central part of the Obama administration’s response to the Gulf oil spill by saying it had overreached in imposing a six-month freeze on deepwater offshore drilling.
The decision striking down the temporary ban — the White House quickly vowed to appeal — prompted a flurry of reactions that reveal deep political divides on drilling policy in the wake of the BP spill.
But it came as a blow to the administration, which has struggled to demonstrate it has a firm grasp on the spill response and has taken aggressive steps to prevent another drilling-related disaster.
“The president strongly believes… that continuing to drill at these depths without knowing what happened does not make any sense and puts the safety . . . of those on the rigs and safety of the environment in the Gulf at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford right now,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
The energy consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners said Tuesday that it expects the administration, in addition to launching an appeal, to request an emergency stay of the ruling, which would leave the ban in place.
Several liberal Democrats condemned the judge’s ruling.
“This is another bad decision in a disaster riddled with bad decisions by the oil industry,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “The only thing worse than one oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico would be two oil spill disasters.”
“As a deepwater drilling site continues gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it is incredibly shortsighted to say that similar rigs do not pose a danger,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) added in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Anna Aurilio, who heads the Washington, D.C., office of the group Environment America, said the decision “is like putting a drunk back in the driver’s seat after handing him a cup of coffee.”
The injunction stems from a lawsuit against the drilling freeze brought by several companies that provide support services to drilling rigs. Feldman said they were likely to successfully show that the drilling freeze is “arbitrary and capricious.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) had filed a brief supporting the lawsuit to lift the ban. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who had urged the White House to reconsider the ban imposed in late May, on Tuesday said the administration should also reconsider its promised appeal.
“We have tried to explain to the administration and argue as forcefully as we can that this [moratorium] is an overreach and it is unnecessary,” she said.
“There are only 33 deepwater rigs drilling in the Gulf. A better strategy would be to do targeted, strategic safety checks, then let them go on and drill the oil and gas that’s needed,” Landrieu added in a short interview in the Capitol.
“With this ruling, our industry and its people can get back to work to provide Americans with the energy they need, and do it safely and without harming the environment,” the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement.
The ban stems from an Interior Department review of offshore safety, which the White House ordered after the spill began. Interior said it was halting issuance of new deepwater drilling permits and halting work at 33 existing projects.
The administration has argued the ban is needed while new safety and environmental precautions are enacted. A bipartisan presidential commission is reviewing the “root causes” of the oil spill and needed reforms.
But Feldman’s ruling says the Interior Department report and Interior’s decisionmaking process don’t support the ban. The court “is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium,” the decision says.
“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 feet also universally present an imminent danger,” it adds.