WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Wednesday night asked a judge to delay a court ruling that overturned a moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf.
In court papers filed with the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, the Justice Department said that it is seeking the delay while appealing the decision of U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.
The Justice Department says a delay would serve the public interest by eliminating the risk of another drilling accident while new safety equipment standards and procedures are considered.
The Interior Department imposed the drilling 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.
On Tuesday, Feldman overturned it, saying the government simply assumed that because one deep-water rig exploded, the others pose an imminent danger, too.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's determination that a threat exists has firm support from a variety of sources, the Justice Department argued in seeking the delay.
"The existence of such a threat is not seriously contested" by any expert cited by the companies seeking to overturn the moratorium or by the state of Louisiana, the court filing stated.
"To the contrary, the state of Louisiana concedes that additional safety measures are necessary, and disputes only the length of time needed to implement them," the department added.
No relevant provisions in the Administrative Procedure Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act or implementing regulations require the Interior Department to prepare a formal decision document or findings of fact prior to issuing a suspension, the federal government's court papers said.
"Given the efforts that are being directed at trying to stem the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon and to clean up the oil that has already been released, a second deepwater blowout could overwhelm the efforts to respond to the current disaster, and dramatically set back recovery," the court papers stated.
The department argued that risk of potential harm to the people and public lands of the United States should the court not grant a delay significantly outweighs the harm to the companies that sought to overturn the moratorium.
Separately, a number of environmental groups asked the court to release additional information about Feldman's financial interests.
The judge's financial disclosure report for 2008, the most recent available, shows holdings in at least eight petroleum companies or funds that invest in them, including Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that blew up. The report shows that most of his holdings were valued at less than $15,000; it did not provide specific amounts.
The environmental groups want to know whether Feldman has a financial interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding, a determination that could lead to the judge being forced to disqualify himself from the case.
Federal laws requires judges to remove themselves from any proceeding in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. The environmental groups filing the request included the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Salazar said Wednesday that he plans to issue a new deepwater drilling freeze that could be refined to reflect offshore conditions and allow drilling in areas where reserves and risks are known rather than in exploratory reservoirs.