Judge Blocks 6-Month Moratorium On Gulf Drilling

A federal judge in New Orleans has blocked the government's six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. Judge Martin Feldman ruled that the decision to shut down all rigs drilling in waters over 500 feet was overly broad and could cause economic harm to people and businesses that depend on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Robert Smith about the impact of the ruling.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A federal judge today struck down the government's six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. Judge Martin Feldman agreed with the oil companies that the ban is overly broad and could do economic harm to the states along the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling is a setback for the Obama administration.

And joining us now from outside the federal courthouse in New Orleans is NPR's Robert Smith. Robert, what was the judge's reasoning behind this ruling?

ROBERT SMITH: Well, Judge Martin Feldman basically said that the Obama administration botched this moratorium. He didn't really say whether the moratorium was a good or a bad thing, but he said the Obama administration basically moved too quickly to ban all deepwater drilling. And he didn't really give enough reasoning for why all these rigs needed to be stopped.

You know, the judge said that obviously the Deepwater Horizon explosion was a terrible thing, it impacted the Gulf, but it never - the Obama administration never proved that there was a problem with all the other rigs out there.

NORRIS: What's the reaction been from the other oil companies?

SMITH: Well, I haven't reached any of the plaintiffs yet. They were obviously they would obviously be very pleased. But, you know, I reached one of the smaller oil services firms. Bryan Chaisson, he runs NREC Systems. Now, he's been arguing this moratorium which shut him down. He basically runs a diesel repair yard, and he already laid off 28 people. And he said basically if the appeals court doesn't stop us, he'll be able to recover in 90 days. He said starting on Monday he's going to hire some people back at least.

NORRIS: The injunction had been requested by an outfit called Hornbeck Offshore Services. And the Obama administration has already said it will appeal this decision. What will the government and environmental groups argue in that appeal?

SMITH: Well, right now, environmental groups who I reached said that basically they think their argument's a strong one and this judge didn't happen to agree with them. Now they started to make an argument near the end that it wasn't just that the current drilling rigs are unsafe, but that there just can't be a chance of a second oil spill in the Gulf. And that any minute chance that new drilling could cause another oil spill would completely overwhelm the system and the Gulf would never recover.

So that was the argument they were making near the end. You know, this judge didn't buy it. He was rather harsh in court to the government environmental groups. In fact, he asked a question a lot of people around here have been asking which is, after the Exxon Valdez spill, they didn't ban all tankers. After a railroad accident, was another example he used, they don't ban all railroad transportation. Why should you ban all new deepwater drilling after one accident?

And the judge pointed out in his ruling that all those other new deepwater rigs that were being drilled had passed safety inspections, you know, even after the spill they passed safety inspections. So he really said, the judge, the government needs to prove that there's a reason to stop drilling for at least six months.

NORRIS: And the government said that they're going to issue they're going to seek this appeal immediately. So, what happens next in the case?

SMITH: Well, technically drilling could restart in the Gulf. Or there's been drill rigs right now that are in the process of stopping drilling and they could perhaps keep going theoretically. But oil services companies are saying so far that they're going to wait and see what the appeals court says. It would cost so much money for these companies to restart, to rehire everybody back and then have another judge disagree and have the moratorium go back into effect.

So, everyone's being really cautious right now. It's just the very beginning of this legal debate.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Robert Smith, speaking to us from New Orleans. Thanks, Robert.

SMITH: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.