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Gulf Drilling Permits Can Stay on the Back Burner

(CN) - The 5th Circuit granted the Obama administration a stay from having to act on permit applications for Gulf of Mexico deepwater drilling projects - just under the 30-day deadline set by a federal judge who called the delays "increasingly inexcusable."

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman had granted an injunction to Ensco Offshore Company, a shallow-water drilling company, on Feb. 17.

The federal judge has said the Interior Department's "permitting backlog becomes increasingly inexcusable" as the months stretch on. Before the April 20 explosion at Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people and set off the worst unintentional oil spill in history, permits were decided within about two weeks. The five companies currently waiting on permits have been waiting between five and 10 months.

With the 5th Circuit's order Tuesday, those delays will continue pending the government's appeal.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has not acted on any drilling permit applications since the government imposed a blanket moratorium on offshore drilling about a month after the spill.

Officials defended the halt, which they said would give agents time to examine the then-current procedures and regulations imposed on deepwater drilling companies operating in the Gulf, and to tighten regulations, if necessary.

Feldman nixed the ban in June, finding that one rig explosion was not reason enough for the government to assume other rigs posed a similar threat of catastrophe. Within weeks, the Interior Department issued a second moratorium - one that offshore drilling companies, including Ensco, criticized as being nearly identical to the first. Ensco filed suit in July.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the government would enforce the moratorium, one way or another, until drilling safety and oil-spill response protocols were improved.

Although the government officially lifted the second moratorium in October, the government has not changed its stance.

In early February, Feldman said the Obama administration acted in contempt for continuing to enforce the moratorium after he had found the drilling ban was "arbitrary and capricious."

"As the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster draws near, any reason that would have justified delays has, under a rule of reason, expired," Feldman wrote in granting the February injunction. "Beginning to process permit applications will restore normalcy to the Gulf region and repair the public's faith in the administrative process."

The three-judge appellate panel did not comment Tuesday in granting the injunction.

Over the summer, federal officials and environmental groups raised questions about Feldman's ability to impartially rule on the case. The groups asked Feldman to step down, noting that he "owns and/or recently has owned an interest in several companies that comprise part of the network that supports the Gulf's oil and gas industry."

Feldman, who was nominated to the bench by President Ronald Regan, rejected the motion for disqualification and said the concerns were "without merit."

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