Open Season On Risk For Gulf Residents

Today, in a decision that increases the risk of another uncontrollable oil well blowout, U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman of New Orleans, Louisiana, issued an injunction that halts enforcement of the Obama Administration’s six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  The moratorium had halted drilling work on 33 exploratory deepwater wells in the Gulf.  The roughly 3,500 existing wells in the Gulf were not affected by the moratorium. 

The moratorium was based on a safety report that the Department of the Interior published after the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  The safety report made a number of technical recommendations and included this language from Secretary Salazar:

The Secretary further recommends an immediate halt to drilling operations on the 33 permitted wells, not including the relief wells currently being drilled by BP, that are currently being drilled using floating rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling operations should cease as soon as safely practicable for a 6-month period.

The plaintiff in the Louisiana case argued that the safety report did not support the six-month duration of the moratorium or the moratorium’s ban on deepwater drilling (in depth over 500 feet) while allowing shallow water drilling to continue.  Judge Feldman’s opinion agreed with plaintiff on both points.  Judge Feldman also agreed with the plaintiff, an international oil industry services company, that it would suffer irreparable injury if the moratorium were not lifted. 

The federal government, the defendant in the case, has announced that it will appeal.  NRDC and certain other environmental groups have intervened in the case to support the moratorium, and may also appeal.

Setting aside the legal niceties, here’s the problem with this.  We know some of the consequences of a blowout in the Gulf.  Lives lost, fisheries ruined, the hospitality industry in shreds, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals oiled and killed.  Dispersed undersea oil is a killing machine, heading who knows where.  An Exxon Valdez-sized spill is happening in the Gulf, every week.

But we don’t have a handle on the risk of this happening again.  And we won’t know that until the well is capped, the blowout preventer is brought to the surface and examined and the government investigations completed. 

It is the height of irresponsibility, in my view, to have the people of the Gulf exposed to another Deepwater Horizon incident when we don’t know how the current spill happened, how to prevent another one, or how to contain it and clean it up if it occurs.  But that is exactly the result that the oil industry wanted, and today they got it.