- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Louisiana judge who struck down the Obama administration’s six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has reported extensive investments in the oil and gas industry, according to financial disclosure reports. He’s also a new member of a secret national security court.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, a 1983 appointee of President Reagan, reported owning less than $15,000 in stock in 2008 in Transocean Ltd., the company that owned the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Judge Feldman overturned the ban Tuesday, saying the government simply assumed that because one rig exploded, the others pose an imminent danger, too.

The White House promised an immediate appeal. The Interior Department had imposed the moratorium last month in the wake of the BP disaster, halting approval of any new permits for deepwater projects and suspending drilling on 33 exploratory wells.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement late Tuesday that within the next few days he would issue a new order imposing a moratorium that eliminates any doubt it is needed and appropriate.

Several companies that ferry people and supplies and provide other services to offshore rigs argued that the moratorium was arbitrarily imposed after the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and blew out a well 5,000 feet underwater. It has spewed anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons of oil.

Judge Feldman’s 2008 financial disclosure report — the most recent available — also showed investments in Ocean Energy, a Houston-based company, as well as Quicksilver Resources, Prospect Energy, Peabody Energy, Halliburton, Pengrowth Energy Trust, Atlas Energy Resources, Parker Drilling and others. Halliburton was also involved in the doomed Deepwater Horizon project.

Judge Feldman did not respond to requests for comment and to clarify whether he still holds some or all of these investments.

He’s one of many federal judges across the Gulf Coast region with money in oil and gas. Several have disqualified themselves from hearing spill-related lawsuits and others have sold their holdings so they can preside over some of the 200-plus cases.

Although Judge Feldman ruled in favor of oil interests Tuesday, one expert said his reasoning appeared sound because the six-month ban was overly broad.

“There’s been some concern that he is biased toward the industry, but I don’t see it in this opinion,” said Tim Howard, a Northeastern University law professor who also represents businesses and people claiming economic losses in several spill-related lawsuits. “They overreacted and just shut an industry down, rather than focusing on where the problems are.”

That was what Judge Feldman essentially said in his ruling, writing that the blanket moratorium “seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.”

Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, said the ruling should be rescinded if Judge Feldman still has investments in companies that could benefit.

“If Judge Feldman has any investments in oil and gas operators in the Gulf, it represents a flagrant conflict of interest,” Mr. Reichert said.

Judge Feldman’s ruling prohibits federal officials from enforcing the moratorium until a trial is held. He wrote: “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.”

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