In what I think is the first judicial ruling that the Obama administration exceeded its authority and had to be reined in, U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman (no relation) on Tuesday lifted the administration’s six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling and enjoined the government from enforcing it.
Obama temporarily halted all drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet on May 27 to give a presidential commission time to study improvements in the safety of offshore operations. More than a dozen Louisiana offshore service and supply companies sued U.S. regulators to lift the ban. The U.S. said it will appeal the decision.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman today granted a preliminary injunction, halting the moratorium. He also “immediately prohibited” the U.S. from enforcing the ban. Government lawyers told Feldman the ban was based on findings in a U.S. report following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast in April.
“The court is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium,” Feldman said in his 22-page decision. “The blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.”
“The court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency, but the agency must ‘cogently explain why it has exercised its discretion in a given manner,’” Feldman said, citing a previous ruling. “It has not done so.” (Bloomberg video).
Judge Feldman in a separate order “immediately prohibited” the U.S. from enforcing the drilling moratorium, finding the offshore companies would otherwise incur “irreparable harm.”
The Department of Justice will apparently seek an emergency stay of that order, but for the reasons I’ll explain I think the judge was right and there is no way his order can be stayed without the drillers and the public suffering irreparable injury. I also believe it is unlikely the government can persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to overturn the lower court because the facts are so clearly on the side of the plaintiffs and the judge’s opinion is so sound.
Courts should not enjoin administrative actions lightly, but in this case Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar acted capriciously, irrationally, mendaciously, and without regard to the great injury to the public interest in issuing a moratorium which would have destroyed the deepwater oil drilling industry and the economies of the Gulf states which are heavily dependent on the industry.