NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Obama administration acted in contempt when it continued to enforce a federal drilling moratorium after a New Orleans judge ruled the moratorium was "arbitrary and capricious," the same judge ruled. The ruling also scolds an "important White House official" for creating the incorrect impression that the moratorium had been recommended by an expert panel.
The Interior Department acted with "a flagrant and continuous disregard" when it lifted and reinstated a series of policies to restrict offshore drilling in the wake of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, according to a ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge, Martin L.C. Feldman.
"The government did not simply reimpose a blanket moratorium; rather, each step the government took following the court's imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance," Feldman, who was nominated by President Ronald Regan, wrote.
"Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the re-imposition of a second blanket and substantially identical moratorium and in light of the national importance of this case, provide this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government's contempt of this court's preliminary injunction order," the eight-page order states.
Weeks after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 people and set off the catastrophic oil spill that ultimately spewed more than 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, White House officials put a ban on all drilling in waters over 500 feet.
When the Interior Department announced the ban, it asserted that the drilling restriction had been recommended by a panel of technical experts assembled by the White House to advise the administration on how to improve the safety of offshore drilling operations. Referring to the experts, the Interior Department said the moratorium had been "peer reviewed."
Shortly after the ban was instated, the experts reportedly gave a statement at a Senate hearing, saying they never agreed to the government's six-month moratorium and that the language about the moratorium - as it was enforced - did not appear in the draft they reviewed.
In November, it came out that the safety report had been changed after the "peer review."
Calling the moratorium "punitive," Judge Feldman overturned the ban at the end of June in response to protests from the offshore drilling industry and Gulf Coast businesses.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar immediately announced the moratorium would continue to be enforced, one way or another, until drilling safety and oil-spill response protocols were improved.
Salazar announced a second moratorium in July that was also challenged with a lawsuit, and with claims from Gulf Coast officials that a blanket ban on drilling would crush the local economy and cause massive job losses.
The ban was lifted in October, before Judge Feldman had a chance to rule on it, but industry officials complained the White House nevertheless continued to stall its issuance of new drilling permits.
In January, Judge Feldman ruled that the White House did not have to issue new permits faster, but he ruled to strike down Salazar's new safety regulations required of companies before drilling could resume.
Feldman has ordered the government to pay the plaintiff's "significant" legal fees.
The order pertains to Hornbeck Offshore Services LLC v. Salazar, 2:10-cv-01663
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