The Obama administration on Friday asked a U.S. appeals court to stay a ruling that lifted a temporary ban on deepwater oil drilling, its latest attempt to clamp down in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill.
The Justice Department filed an emergency request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, based in New Orleans, to put on hold a decision by Judge Martin Feldman that blocked a six-month suspension on exploratory and development drilling in U.S. waters from being enforced.
Without a stay that would keep the temporary moratorium intact, a second deepwater spill could overwhelm response efforts and dramatically set back recovery, the Justice Department warned in its request to the appeals court.
The district court committed legal error and abused its discretion in issuing its preliminary injunction order, it said.
The moratorium suspended work on 33 rigs but did not apply to wells already producing oil. Some companies like Royal Dutch Shell have said they would await the outcome of the litigation over the ban before beginning drilling again.
Drilling firm Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc had challenged the suspension and was joined by others like Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. Some companies said they were considering drilling outside U.S. waters because of the ban.
Judge Feldman had ordered the moratorium be lifted because he found it to be too broad and was not adequately justified given the impact on the economy. On Thursday, he denied a stay request by the Obama administration.
The challenged suspension orders target only those deepwater operations that present safety concerns similar to those raised by the Deepwater Horizon event, the filing said, referring to the explosion aboard the drilling rig and subsequent oil spill at the BP Plc well.
The Interior Department issued the six-month moratorium, deciding that human lives and the environment would best be safeguarded by temporarily suspending a narrow class of activities, the administration said in its filing.
It argued that the judge did not defer to the department's expertise and did not take into account the limited and temporary suspensions that Interior issued.
The appeal is part of a two-pronged approach by the White House to temporarily halt deepwater drilling so investigators can determine the cause of the BP oil well spill and to ensure that other wells being drilled below 500 feet of water are safe.
In addition to pursuing the appeal, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he plans to revise the initial moratorium that was blocked to make it more flexible and would include criteria for ending the ban, an apparent bid to pass court muster.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Anthony Boadle)