U.S. in contempt for deepwater drilling moratorium

A federal judge in New Orleans has found the Department of the Interior in contempt for its order last year to lift the drilling moratorium by imposing a second arbitrary moratorium.

In his Feb. 2 ruling (Hornbeck Offshore Services LLC v. Salazar), U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman noted the government’s “determined disregard” of his order of a preliminary injunction last June.

On June 22, 2010, Feldman granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the Obama administration not to enforce the first deepwater drilling moratorium. 

The government appealed Feldman’s injunction order. On July 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected a stay. On July 12, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a memorandum rescinding the first moratorium and issued a second drilling ban “that disabled precisely the same rigs and deepwater drilling rigs and activities in the Gulf of Mexico as did the first one.” (Although it superficially, rather than continue the 500-foot depth standard, purported to restrain all rigs that use subsea blowout preventers or surface blowout preventers on a floating facility.)

Feldman said in his Feb. 2 ruling that “each step the government took following the Court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance. The government failed to seek a remand. It continually reaffirmed its intention and resolve to restore the moratorium. It even notified operators that though a preliminary injunction had [been]issued, they could quickly expect a new moratorium.

“Such dismissive conduct,” Feldman’s order continued, “viewed in tandem with the reimposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium and in light of the national importance of this case, provides this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt of this Court’s preliminary injunction order.”

While Hornbeck Offshore was granted its request to recover attorney’s fees, it remains to be seen if Feldman’s latest ruling will speed up the granting of drilling permits or if the de facto drilling moratorium will essentially remain in effect.

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