U.S. District Judge Martin L. C. Feldman's decision Tuesday to overturn the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is indefensible. The oil gushing into the gulf since the April 20 rig explosion is an environmental and economic disaster, and deepwater drilling should remain on hold until there is a clear understanding of what went wrong and how to prevent a recurrence. The administration is appealing the judge's ruling, and higher courts should overturn it.
Feldman bought the line by the oil services industry that the six-month moratorium imposed by the administration amounted to a "heavy-handed" and "indeed punitive" step that would cause "convincing harm" to thousands of people who work on or serve the drilling rigs. His ruling was a sweeping and overheated sop to an industry whose assurances carry little credibility. The ban affected 33 rigs; it did not apply to the 5,000 production wells already operating in the gulf, including 586 in deep water of more than 1,000 feet. The judge from New Orleans sided with the interests of Louisiana's oil industry ahead of other sectors, from tourism to fishing, that through no fault of their own are suffering heavily across Florida and other states.
Halting drilling in deep water pending a six-month review of safety procedures is a reasonable step given how the BP disaster exposed the utter failure of government to oversee the industry and respond to any accident. In his ruling, Feldman faults the administration for not justifying the moratorium. He accepted at face value a regulatory framework that exists on paper but not in the real world. The judge found great confidence in the industry's safety record and advanced technology, apparently choosing to ignore repeated evidence that the industry has exaggerated its performance. And he downplayed warnings from the president's chief science adviser and others who have warned Congress that the United States does not have the capacity to respond to a second leak if equipment fails on another rig.
The ruling was a narrow and reckless interpretation of the issues involved, and it failed to balance the interest of millions whose livelihood is now threatened or protect the natural resources at risk. The administration said it would appeal, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should reverse the ruling before the oil industry can compound the damage.