Administration Challenges Ruling On Oil Drilling

The Obama administration will appeal a ruling by a federal judge in New Orleans who struck down the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he'll issue a new order imposing a moratorium that will eliminate any doubt it's appropriate.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

The people who are drilling new deepwater oil wells have been wondering when they can get back to work. A federal judge says, right now. But President Obama's administration says it's still trying to keep a ban in place.

INSKEEP: The administration imposed a six-month moratorium on new deepwater wells. It was a pause to determine better safety rules after the BP spill. Now, a judge has struck down that ban. Environmental groups are furious, and the administration says it will provide more information as to why the ban is essential.

NPR's Robert Smith reports from New Orleans.

ROBERT SMITH: The Obama administration never laid out a detailed argument for its six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. They didnt think they had to. Catherine Wannamaker, from the Southern Environmental Law Center, says it seemed pretty obvious.

Ms. CATHERINE WANNAMAKER (Southern Environmental Law Center): You know, all you have to do is look around in the gulf at whats happening every day, and our failure to control that leak 60 days later. And that should be justification enough.

SMITH: But it sure wasnt enough for federal court Judge Martin Feldman of New Orleans. In a blistering opinion, the judge mocked the reasoning behind the decision to suspend drilling. He called the Obama administration's studies incomprehensible and factually incorrect. The moratorium, he said, was arbitrary and capricious.

Sure, the judge seemed horrified by the effects of the oil spill in the gulf. But he asked in his decision why an accident on one rig meant that every other deepwater rig was filled with danger.

The White House shot back that in fact, there is a danger - to the workers, and to the environment.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs....

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Continuing to drill at these depths, without knowing what happened, does not make any sense.

SMITH: The White House will appeal the judge's decision to allow the drilling to restart. But in the meantime, it was a rare sunny day for the oil industry. A coalition of oil service firms had sued the government over the moratorium. They claimed that the ban was costing thousands of jobs and endangering the future of the industry in the gulf.

When business owner Brian Chaisson heard the judge's decision, he was over the moon.

Mr. BRIAN CHAISSON (Owner, NREC Power Systems): I said, boy, Ill tell you what, maybe Ill make some money this year.

SMITH: Chaisson runs a company that repairs diesel ship engines. He lost millions of dollars in canceled orders after the moratorium went into effect. He knows the appeal process will go on, but he hopes to hire back some of his laid-off employees.

Mr. CHAISSON: I feel better about the industry. I feel that the boat companies, the shipyards and people like that are going to stand up.

SMITH: But the days of drill, baby, drill, are not back quite yet. No rig company has said that it will restart deepwater drilling until they know how this appeal plays out.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, urged the administration to stop all this fighting with the oil industry. She suggested that they just cooperate in coming up with better safety regulations.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): The Department of the Interior could deploy a team of inspectors to every deepwater rig. It's only 33. They could do that in a matter of a few days.

SMITH: Judge Martin Feldman made a similar argument. The administration, he said, needs to take into account the safety record of each drilling operation. Otherwise, the judge suggested, the nation would have banned all oil tankers after the Exxon Valdez spill. That analogy really riles up the environmentalists.

Catherine Wannamaker, from the Southern Environmental Law Center, says it doesnt make any sense.

Ms. WANNAMAKER: There, you know, was one drunk operator. And here, we're dealing with a situation where all of these deepwater wells have many of the same systemic risks, and we think it's appropriate in that situation to issue a blanket moratorium.

SMITH: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has one more trick up his sleeve. Besides the appeal, he warned in a statement that he would issue a new drilling moratorium in the coming days. Salazar promised that this time, it'll come with plenty of evidence and eliminate any doubt.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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