Deepwater drilling permits must move forward, judge rules
A federal judge in New Orleans has ordered the Interior Department to move forward with five drilling applications for the Gulf of Mexico that have been under review for four to nine months.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, who overruled the Obama administration's first deep-water drilling moratorium last year, said Interior's stance that there was no strict time limit to the review process for permit applications "would produce autocratic discretion at best."
"Perhaps it is reasonable for permit applicants to wait more than two weeks in a necessarily more
closely regulated environment," Feldman wrote, in a reversal of his previous decision on a case brought by ENSCO Offshore Co. and other oil-rig service businesses. "Delays of four months and more in the permitting process, however, are unreasonable, unacceptable, and unjustified by the evidence before the Court."
Feldman noted that before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf and killed 11 men, permits were approved in about two weeks. "Beyond dispute is that before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, permit applications were resolved in some two weeks. Also clear is that the permit applications at issue here have experienced delays of four months, if not more," he wrote
The plaintiff, ENSCO, has five deep-water permits pending with the Interior Department and asked the court to require the department to act within a 30-day time frame set by federal regulations in 1978. Feldman agreed.
A month after the BP spill began, President Obama said that a congressionally mandated 30-day time limit to decide on completed permit applications contributed to a rush to allow drilling in the gulf without adequate review.
"That leaves no time for the appropriate environmental review," Obama said during a May 27 news conference. "The result is, they are continually waived. And this is just one example of a law that was tailored by the industry to serve their needs instead of the public's. So Congress needs to address these issues as soon as possible, and my administration will work with them to do so."
The new agency, Feldman wrote, "has taken over management from a formerly crumbling and disreputable agency; the leaking culprit well has been contained; the revised regulations are no longer new; and the threat of rigs leaving the Gulf becomes more forceful each day. The permitting backlog becomes increasingly inexcusable."
-- Geoffrey Mohan
Photo: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico last April. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard