Interior Secretary Salazar wins court victory on order to act on pending permits

For now, the Department of the Interior can breathe easy when it comes to oil drilling in the Gulf. Secretary Ken Salazar has been under fire recently for holding up drilling permits, but late Tuesday, he won a court victory.

A federal appellate court ruled Tuesday evening that Salazar does not have to comply with a previous court order to act on five pending permits in 30 days. The time limit would have been up this Saturday.

In February, Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Louisiana, ordered Salazar to act on five deep-water drilling projects. Salazar then appealed the court order, and Tuesday’s decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is a temporary stay on Feldman’s order.

In his appeal, Salazar argued that if Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) had to act on the permits, all five would likely be denied. That, said the appeal, “in turn would frustrate Congress’ stated preference that the Outer Continental Shelf be made available” for drilling.

Interior and BOEMRE have been in the spotlight recently for what some have called a de facto moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. After the BP oil spill last spring, a moratorium was imposed. But while it was lifted last October, deepwater drilling still hasn’t resume to its full pace.

Since March 1, however, the agency has issued two deep-water drilling permits: one for Noble Energy off the coast of Louisiana, and one for BHP Billiton. The second permit was issued late last Friday.