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Gulf oil spill: Legislators react to lifting of drilling moratorium

June 22, 2010 |  3:14 pm
In Washington, a federal district court's decision to throw out President Obama's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling drew cheers from lawmakers from the energy-producing Gulf Coast and jeers from those from other parts of the country.

The reaction underscores reality: Energy policy often divides lawmakers by region rather than by party affiliation.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she would urge the Obama administration not to appeal the ruling but to find a way to achieve its goal of ensuring safety without harming her state's fragile economy. The administration has said it would appeal.

Landrieu warned that the moratorium would drive rigs from the gulf to other countries, not only costing the gulf region jobs but making the U.S. more dependent on foreign oil.

"If you owned one of these rigs, would you allow your rig to sit there and lose $500,000 a day?" she said. "You have no obligation as a rig owner to produce oil for America."

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) called the decision "welcome news for thousands of Louisiana welders, pipe fitters, engineers and roustabouts whose jobs were threatened by a political decision."

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) said the ruling was "encouraging" for Louisianans whose jobs depend on the oil and gas industry, and expressed hope that the administration would not appeal.

"As long as the administration is appealing the decision, the future of energy production in the gulf remains unclear," he said. "I hope the president will stand with the thousands of Louisiana families who have spoken loudly with one voice about the dangers this moratorium poses to our economy and order his administration not to appeal today's decision."

David DiMartino, a former Democratic Senate aide working with a coalition supporting clean energy and climate legislation, said the ruling "brings up the division between folks who stand with Big Oil and folks who don't.... It plays into the president's messaging that what's happening is in the gulf is a symptom of our over-reliance on oil."

He said the ruling is certain to stoke the debate between "the Big Oil side and the people who want a clean energy future."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called the ruling "incredibly shortsighted," given that oil is still gushing into the gulf.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) concurred, saying: "We shouldn't even consider putting our environment, our economy, or our workers at risk on deep-water drilling projects until we know what caused this tragedy in the gulf coast, and until we understand exactly how to prevent anything like it from ever happening again."

Environmental groups also were harsh. "I'm surprised that the judge failed to issue an apology to BP while he was at it," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

"What does it say about our system that even the president of the United States can't pause Big Oil's dangerous deep-water drilling?" Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

Thomas J. Pyle, president of the pro-drilling Institute for Energy Research, said in a statement that the moratorium was "never about safety -- it was about politics."

Landrieu said that the Obama administration could do more to address safety concerns, short of shutting down the rigs. The Interior Department, she said, could deploy inspectors to every deep-water rig.

"It's only 33," she said. "They could do that in a matter of a few days."

The administration could demand better oil spill response plans, Landrieu suggested. "Take out the walruses," she said, referring to a much-ridiculed provision of oil companies' spill response plans for the gulf that have mentioned walruses, even though they aren't found in the gulf.

"There is a path forward that would not result in an irreversible damage to this industry," Landrieu said in a conference call with reporters. "The president could help by clearly communicating to the American people he is committed to reopening the deep-water gulf at the earliest possible time line."

Gulf Coast lawmakers have expressed concern that the presidential commission investigating the spill could take longer than six months to come up with safety recommendations. They have introduced legislation seeking to lift the moratorium, backed by pro-drilling Republicans from other states who say the moratorium threatens an important supply of domestic energy.

The gulf legislators contend that one way the administration's safety concerns could be addressed is by permitting oil companies to drill but requiring them to stop short of tapping into the well.

-- Richard Simon in Washington