By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; 8:42 PM
The Interior Department has issued a new offshore drilling moratorium that is different, but not very different, from the one blocked recently by a New Orleans federal judge.
The six-month moratorium announced in May in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill barred drilling in waters more than 500 feet deep. The moratorium announced Monday doesn't mention water depths, but it bars drilling by the types of rigs and drilling technology typically used in those waters.
A senior Interior Department official said none of the 33 rigs whose activity was interrupted in May would be able to resume the exploration drilling activity they were involved in then.
The Justice Department said that the new order supersedes the earlier one and renders the legal challenge to the moratorium moot. That challenge had been mounted by Hornbeck Offshore Services and other drilling firms, which had won an injunction from a district court judge. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Interior Department's motion to stay the preliminary injunction pending appeal.
The appellate court set oral arguments for the week of Aug. 30. But the Justice Department said it would now ask the courts to vacate the injunction and dismiss the Hornbeck case "because the challenged May 28 decision is no longer operative and, thus, does not impact the plaintiffs."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday that he was suspending drilling done using undersea blowout preventers or blowout preventers used on top of floating rigs. Such rigs are used in deep water, while rigs in shallower water are able to stand on legs reaching the sea floor. Salazar said the suspension would last until Nov. 30, the expiration date of the original moratorium.
As with the previous moratorium order, Salazar said that the suspension was needed "to ensure that drilling activity undertaken on the nation's Outer Continental Shelf is conducted in a manner that is safe for workers, coastal communities and the environment."
Reactions to the new moratorium order split along the same lines as previously, with environmental groups praising the move and drilling advocates condemning it.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, called it "a welcome and courageous step."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a supporter of continued drilling, said in testimony to the presidential commission on the oil spill that the new moratorium "does not address many of the concerns expressed by the experts, the court system, and families and businesses along the Gulf Coast." She said, "Whether you call it a moratorium, a suspension, or a pause, the result will still be a substantial loss of jobs."
"I characterize it more as a repackaging," said James W. Noe, general counsel of Hercules, the biggest shallow water drilling company. "There's very little new information about the justification."