Salazar appeals court decision forcing him to act on drilling permits

When the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) issued last week the first deep-water drilling permit since last April’s BP oil spill, lawmakers and those in the oil industry hoped it was a sign of better days to come for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Late Friday, however, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put those hopes to rest.

Salazar, along with BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich, filed an appeal to a court order that would have forced him to act on five pending permits for deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last spring, immediately after the BP oil spill, President Obama issued a moratorium on deep-water drilling. But while the moratorium was officially lifted in October, the Department of Interior did not issue a single permit until last Monday – right before Salazar was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill.

Then on February 2, Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, rebuked the administration for “determined disregard” of his June 2010 order to lift the drilling ban. Two weeks later, Feldman ordered Salazar to act on pending permits within 30 days.

Those 30 days are quickly winding down, and now Salazar is fighting back. In the appeal, the secretary asked for a temporary stay of Feldman’s decision.

“The Court’s finding of unreasonable delay, and decision to compel action on the applications were made in error,” says the appeal. “And compliance with the Court’s Orders will greatly harm BOEMRE and the efficient development of oil and gas resources on the Outer Continental Shelf, as well as potentially harm the near-term interests of the operators who submitted the subject applications.”

The appeal goes on to say that if the agency is required to act on pending permits, it is likely they would all be denied, which “in turn would frustrate Congress’ stated preference that the Outer Continental Shelf be made available” for drilling.

While oil drilling in the Gulf is being sorted out through the court system, world prices for oil are continuing to skyrocket. That point has frustrated many lawmakers, most notably Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who grilled Salazar last week on permits.

“[B]ut the point that seems to be amiss on this administration is that while current production might not be impacted, future production will be impacted,” said Landrieu over the weekend.

Republican Sen. David Vitter, also of Louisiana, chided the Obama Administration Monday for dragging its feet on the issue.

“I believe we should increase our supply right here at home by unshackling our domestic energy-producing economy, specifically in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Vitter.  “Yet the Interior Department is still foot-dragging on permits while our Energy Department is actively seeking to make us more dependent on foreign sources of energy.”