A federal judge halted President Obama’s deep-water oil-drilling moratorium on Tuesday, telling the government its justification for the ban was “rather overbearing” and misled the public in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued an injunction, describing the president’s decision as rushed and ruling that the government had jumped to the conclusion that all deep-water drilling rigs are dangerous despite the lack of any evidence.
The White House said it will immediately appeal, but in the meantime it is yet another setback as Mr. Obama seeks to show he has gained control of the environmental disaster in the region two months after the BP well first began gushing. Eleven workers were killed when the rig exploded on April 20.
The moratorium has come under fire from lawmakers of both parties in the region, who said the halt could hurt the already struggling economy’s chances of rebounding.
Judge Feldman said the Interior Department misstated the opinion of the experts it consulted. In his report to Mr. Obama, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the recommendations, including the six-month moratorium, were reviewed by experts from the National Academy of Engineering but the engineers said they never saw the final recommendations and don’t support a blanket ban.
Judge Feldman said Mr. Salazar’s report was “misleading,” and that the government offered conflicting and confusion justifications for the deep-water ban. He said most of the arguments boil down to the fact that one rig, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, failed.
“If some drilling equipment parts are flawed, is it rational to say all are? Are all airplanes a danger because one was? All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez? All trains? All mines? That sort of thinking seems heavy-handed, and rather overbearing,” the judge said in his 22-page ruling.
He said the fact that the cause is not yet fully known argues against jumping to conclusions, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the fact that the explosion and spill are still under investigation is exactly the reason to have a ban.
“Continuing to drill at these depths without knowing what happened does not make any sense and puts the safety of those involved potentially puts the safety of those on the rigs and safety of the environment in the Gulf at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford right now,” Mr. Gibbs said.
The administration’s appeal would be heard by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New Orleans.
The lawsuit challenging the moratorium, first announced May 6, was filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, La. Company CEO Todd Hornbeck told the Associated Press after the ruling that he is looking forward to getting back to work.
“It’s the right thing for not only the industry, but the country,” he said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, said the judge’s ruling is so clear-cut that the president should forgo an appeal and instead work out a compromise.
“Hopefully, the president will finally sit down with those of us who have made recommendations about how to address increasing safety and increasing environmental protection without shutting down an entire industry,” Mr. Scalise said.
For now, the oil spill continues to roil Washington.
The House will vote Wednesday on whether to give subpoena power to a commission charged with looking into the spill. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said he expects the measure to pass and that he expects Republicans to support it to show they want to be tough on BP.
Meanwhile, Gulf-area Republicans, joined by some Democrats, have introduced legislation to try to overturn the ban, and have promised to fight the issue during a debate on annual spending bills.
For his part, Mr. Obama said Tuesday that Congress must pass a bill to promote clean energy.
“I think the American people understand that it is a jobs creator, that it is a national security enhancer, that it is what is needed environmentally,” he said.
Mr. Obama imposed the six-month moratorium late last month on all deep-water drilling, which the administration defined as drilling in more than 500 feet of water.
At the White House last week, Carol Browner, the president’s chief energy and climate adviser, called the move a policy decision, not one based on science.
“Mr. Salazar made a decision to recommend a moratorium. That was a policy decision. What the experts were providing was their expert advice, but not the policy decisions that were obviously under the purview of the secretary of the interior,” Ms. Browner said.
Oil company executives told Congress last week they would have to move their rigs to other countries because they lose up to $1 million a day per idle rig and because there are opportunities elsewhere.
Mr. Scalise warned that once the rigs go even if the ban is lifted in six months it could be years before drilling returns to its previous levels in the Gulf. And he said drilling could actually become less safe because the first rigs to leave are likely to be the newest ones, and the crews with the most experience are likely to be snapped up by drilling operations off the coast of Brazil or western Africa.
Congressional Democrats, though, said the judge bungled the decision.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said the administration is right to appeal and that there is “mounting evidence that there are serious safety risks that must be examined” on deep-water rigs.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, said the fact that oil and drilling company executives cannot guarantee there won’t be another spill demonstrates that deep-water drilling is inherently unsafe.
But Judge Feldman, a President Reagan appointee, said the government did not make that case convincingly.
“The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an unprecedented, sad, ugly and inhuman disaster. What seems clear is that the federal government has been pressed by what happened on the Deepwater Horizon into an otherwise sweeping confirmation that all Gulf deep-water drilling activities put us all in a universal threat of irreparable harm,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s moratorium also came under fire earlier Tuesday at a major oil conference in London, where industry executives warned the lengthy ban on drilling could cripple world energy supplies.
“There are things the administration could implement today that would allow the industry to go back to work tomorrow without an arbitrary six-month time limit,” said Steven Newman, president and CEO of Switzerland-based Transocean Ltd., the world’s largest offshore-drilling contractor.
In Louisiana, Kenneth Feinberg, tapped by the White House to run a BP-funded $20 billion fund for people hurt by the spill, pledged to speed payments to fishermen, business owners and others who have lost money.
This article is based in part on wire service report