Judge holds Interior Dept. in contempt over ban

The federal judge who struck down the Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling after the Gulf oil spill held the Interior Department in contempt Wednesday, and ordered the federal agency to pay attorneys' fees for several offshore oil companies.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman chided the department for its "dismissive conduct" after he overturned the agency's decision to halt any new permits for deepwater projects and suspend drilling on 33 exploratory wells after the Deepwater Horizon blast, which killed 11 workers and triggered the massive spill.

After Feldman overturned the government's moratorium in June, the agency issued a second nearly identical suspension.

"Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the reimposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium and in light of the national importance of this case, provide this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government's contempt of this court's preliminary injunction order," he wrote.

A magistrate will consider how much the companies' attorneys should get.

An Interior Department spokeswoman wouldn't comment. A lawyer for the companies hailed the ruling.

"We're obviously delighted with the court's recognition of the government's manipulation of the judicial review process," said Carl Rosenblum, an attorney for Hornbeck Offshore Services and other companies that sued over the first moratorium.

Rosenblum said the companies haven't asked for a specific amount and aren't trying to profit.

"The end game has always been to put people back to work," he said.

Feldman also is presiding over a separate case challenging the Interior Department's second drilling moratorium. That suspension was lifted in October, but the agency was sued by other offshore oil companies that want the permitting process to be quickened.

Last month, however, Feldman refused to order the government to move faster. The judge said it's unclear whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must approve or reject drilling permit applications within a specific time.