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Judge blocks oil drilling halt

Photo by Dave Martin

Photo by Dave Martin

NEW ORLEANS -- A federal judge struck down the Obama administration's six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, saying the government rashly concluded that because one rig failed, the others are in immediate danger, too.

The White House promised an immediate appeal. The Interior Department had halted approval of any new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended drilling of 33 exploratory wells in the Gulf.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama believes strongly that drilling at such depths does not make sense and puts the safety of workers ''at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford.''

Several companies that ferry people and supplies and provide other services to offshore drilling rigs asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans to overturn the moratorium.

They argued it was arbitrarily imposed after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet underwater. It has spewed anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Feldman sided with the companies.

''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 deepwater drilling activities put us all in a universal threat of irreparable harm,'' he wrote.

Feldman's financial disclosure report for 2008, the most recent available, shows holdings in at least eight petroleum companies or companies that invest in them, including Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon. The report shows that most of his holdings were valued at less than $15,000, though it did not provide specific amounts.

It's not clear whether Feldman still has all of the energy industry stock listed in the report. Recent court filings indicate he may no longer have Transocean shares. He did not own any shares in big companies such as BP PLC, which was leasing the rig that exploded, or ExxonMobil.

Feldman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about his current holdings.

Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, said Feldman's ruling should be rescinded if he still has investments in companies that could benefit from Tuesday's ruling.

''If Judge Feldman has any investments in oil and gas operators in the Gulf, it represents a flagrant conflict of interest,'' he said. ''It is possible that he has sold off those assets. We just don't know.''

Feldman's ruling prohibits federal officials from enforcing the moratorium until a trial is held. He did not set a date.

The lawsuit was filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, La., and company CEO Todd Hornbeck said after the ruling he is looking forward to getting back to work.

''It's the right thing for not only the industry but the country,'' he said.