Experts Feel Misrepresented In Drilling Moratorium

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In striking down the moratorium on deep-water drilling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman referred to a group of engineers. They said their views had been misrepresented in the administration's justification of the moratorium.


In his ruling, Judge Martin Feldman referred to a group of experts in the oil and gas industry who the Obama administration consulted before issuing its moratorium. A number of those experts were upset when the moratorium was put in place. They felt their views had been misrepresented by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

NPR's John Ydstie joins us to tell us more about this. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's back up, though, a bit, if you dont mind, and tell us how these experts got involved in the first place.

YDSTIE: Well, after the accident but before instituting the moratorium, the Interior Department asked a number of outside experts to review a set of recommendations it had worked up to make deepwater drilling safer. The experts agreed and signed off on a number of changes the Interior Department wanted to make.

Those experts say the recommendations they reviewed made no mention of a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. But when Secretary Salazar issued his report with the recommendations on May 27th, he also included a call for the six-month moratorium, which the president OK'd. And Salazar included a sentence in the report implying that the experts backed the moratorium.

Well, eight of those experts said: Wait a minute, we never endorsed a blanket moratorium - it wasnt even mentioned in the documents we reviewed. Judge Feldman pointed this out in his decision yesterday, and was clearly troubled by it. He actually uses it as evidence of the flawed nature of the moratorium.

MONTAGNE: So these experts feel there's no need for a moratorium.

YDSTIE: Well, not exactly. What they think is that a blanket moratorium that shuts down all deepwater drilling is unnecessary and could even undermine safety, in some ways. They'd like a more targeted moratorium.

I've talked to several of them over the past few days, and what they say is that most of the operators and the rigs in the gulf have been drilling in a safe manner. And with some new safety measures added since the spill, they should be able to continue to drill.

But these experts say there are some rigs and wells that are more problematic. They've had some safety lapses, just as Deepwater Horizon did before it exploded. They say those rigs and operators should be placed under a drilling moratorium. And a lot of people in the drilling industry agree this would be a reasonable approach.

MONTAGNE: But still, as we just heard, the Obama administration has said it's going to appeal the judge's ruling immediately, try to get the moratorium reinstated.

YDSTIE: That's right. And in addition, Secretary Salazar says he'll issue a new order in the coming days that eliminates any doubt that a moratorium is needed. He continues to maintain the decision to impose a moratorium on deepwater drilling was the right thing to do.

MONTAGNE: So has the White House shown any interest in a compromise along the lines of what the engineers were talking about?

YDSTIE: Well, I'm told by one of these engineers, Ken Arnold, an oil and gas consultant from Houston, that this group is having ongoing discussions with Secretary Salazar about adjustments to the blanket moratorium. Arnold says the secretary seems receptive, but Interior officials won't confirm the meetings are going on.

President Obama has indicated that if the commission he has appointed to study this accident can assure him that it's safe to lift the drilling ban early, he'd be willing to do that. The problem is that the committee is just getting organized, and its leaders have suggested they'll need all of six months or more to reach any conclusions.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that these engineers felt that Salazar misrepresented them, are you surprised that they're even talking to him?

YDSTIE: Well, Salazar apologized and says he didn't mean to imply that they were endorsing the blanket, six-month moratorium. Ken Arnold says he believes the apology was sincere, and he says he's pleased to have this kind of ongoing dialogue.

Now, I should say, there were 15 experts who reviewed Salazar's initial recommendations. Eight of them have publicly said they don't agree with the moratorium, for the reasons that we've described. But at least one of them believes the moratorium is justified.

One of the other seven - her name is Lois Epstein; she's an oil and gas consultant in Alaska - Epstein says the government's regulatory apparatus at Minerals Management Service is so broken, there's no way the government knows whether deep water drillers are operating safely. As we know, the head of MMS resigned, and the new director is doing a wholesale reorganization of the agency.

Epstein says it will take at least six months. She says until the government gets its regulatory system in shape, deepwater drilling in the gulf just won't be safe.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much.

YDSTIE: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's John Ydstie.

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