- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2010

Saying oil companies still are at risk of another catastrophic spill, the Obama administration announced a new moratorium Monday on drilling in the outer continental shelf, three weeks after a judge rejected the first ban.

The new ban covers most of the same drilling as the old moratorium, and lawmakers from states bordering the Gulf of Mexico said it will hurt jobs and leave already sputtering economies in even worse shape.

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who announced the ban Monday, said deep-water drilling must be suspended until investigators can determine the cause of the April 20 explosion that led to millions of barrels of oil being released into the Gulf.

“I remain open to modifying the new deep-water-drilling suspensions based on new information,” Mr. Salazar said, “but industry must raise the bar on its practices and answer fundamental questions about deep-water safety, blowout prevention and containment, and oil spill response.”

Mr. Salazar said the moratorium will end by Nov. 30.

Trying to answer the judge’s objections, the government’s new ban applies to all floating drilling rigs. In practice, it amounts to about the same prohibition as the previous ban on drilling at depths greater than 500 feet, because floating rigs are generally used at those deeper depths.

Gulf state lawmakers said the new moratorium is still “arbitrary and capricious” — the same criticism that led a judge to reject the initial ban.

“There’s no logic behind what they’re doing. It seems to be a knee-jerk response,” said Rep. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican. “It doesn’t seem rooted in what the scientists told us to do.”

He said the ban is part of the administration’s “uncertainty campaign” to make it difficult for companies to plan on any offshore drilling. He said companies will be hard-pressed to wait out the moratorium — when it costs as much as $500,000 for every day a rig is idle in the Gulf — while they could be drilling off the coasts of other countries.

“Companies still are not drilling because they were quite aware that there was going to be some additional machination to limit their ability to drill,” Mr. Cassidy said. “These guys want certainty, and they’re not going to go out and spend a couple million dollars setting up shop and then millions more taking it down.”

For now, oil is still spilling into the Gulf as a result of the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people. In May, the Obama administration announced its first drilling moratorium, which banned all drilling on the outer continental shelf in depths of more than 500 feet.

A federal district judge blocked the administration’s first moratorium last month in a harshly worded decision that said Mr. Salazar failed to show any scientific basis for the blanket drilling ban.

Mr. Salazar appealed and asked for the ban to remain in place while the case is being heard, but an appeals court rejected that request last week.

The Justice Department said the new ban supersedes the original one, and it will ask the district and appeals courts to lift their rulings.

Still, the new moratorium will have to overcome some of the same objections that led district Judge Martin L.C. Feldman to block the original ban.

Judge Feldman said part of the government’s problem was that the scientists and engineers with whom Mr. Salazar consulted have since issued statements saying not only did they not approve of a ban, they also think a blanket moratorium is the wrong solution. They said there is no evidence that all deep-water drilling faces the same level of risk.

But Mr. Salazar, in a memo accompanying the new ban, said deep-water drilling is still too new a field to be confident about its safety record. He said until the government knows what caused the Gulf spill, it must tread carefully.

Efforts to contain that current spill are ongoing.

Officials at BP PLC, the company that owns the drilling lease, said late Monday that a tighter containment cap has been installed on the leaking well.

Even then, it will take a few days to determine whether the new cap, which weighs 150,000 pounds, is capable of siphoning off the full stream of leaking oil, the company said.

The permanent fix won’t come until at least one of two relief wells being dug is finished, at which point the company will inject mud cement into the broken well to seal it. It’s not clear when that will happen, but BP predicts sometime in August.

The nation’s worst environmental disaster has allowed more than 4 million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf, according to federal estimates.

Now, with congressional elections four months away, Republicans are doing their best to make a campaign issue out of the administration’s handling of the crisis. On Monday, the Republican National Committee launched a website, Play Golf or Save the Gulf, poking fun at President Obama’s penchant for weekend golf excursions and saying he has shown “an unacceptable lack of seriousness and focus” as oil continues to spew in the Gulf.

“While communities along the Gulf Coast are reeling from the devastating economic and environmental impact of the ongoing spill, it is beyond offensive that this president would even think of scheduling a tee time. How much further out of touch can President Obama get?” RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele said in a statement.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the new moratorium was drawn with an eye to answering last month’s court ruling that struck down the initial ban.

“We have to be careful with what we’re doing given the uncertainty around what happened 84 days ago. We know that that is not without some economic consequences to the region, but it’s imperative that we have a sense of what happened before we continue to do this again,” he said Monday.

The initial moratorium halted drilling on about three dozen drilling rigs.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of a key House subcommittee, said 97 percent of manned oil rigs will still be allowed to operate, and he said workers displaced by the moratorium will be compensated.

But he said the ban is the right move.

“When every single resource available is being deployed to combat this one spill, what would we do if there were another? The only thing worse than one rig at the bottom of the Gulf would be two.”

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