NEW ORLEANS — An offshore drilling services company asked a federal judge Wednesday to rule that government regulators have unreasonably delayed action on deepwater drilling permit applications even after lifting a drilling moratorium imposed in the wake of the massive Gulf oil spill.
Ensco Offshore Company asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman to issue a preliminary injunction that would require the Interior Department to “expeditiously” process five pending permit applications in which the company has a contractual stake.
Ensco attorney Adam Feinberg suggested Feldman could rule that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must process these applications within 30 days.
The judge said he hoped to rule on that request later this month.
The government lifted its temporary ban on deepwater drilling in October. Since then, offshore operators have submitted 13 permit applications for drilling activities that were barred under the moratorium, but none have been approved, Feinberg said.
“We believe there’s been a pattern of bad faith,” Feinberg said.
Feldman, who said the government’s drilling restrictions have cost an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 jobs, asked Justice Department attorney Guillermo Montero to define what would be a reasonable time period for the government to act on permit applications.
“When will these jobs be restored?” the judge asked.
Montero said every application is different.
“I cannot say in the abstract what a reasonable time is to process any particular application,” he said. “Every application is its own different monster.”
Adam Babich, a lawyer for environmental groups that supported the moratorium, suggested Ensco is asking Feldman to micromanage a government program.
“I’m not going to do that,” the judge interjected. “Nobody elected me senator or congressman”
The government imposed its initial version of the moratorium after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill.
Feldman struck down the ban in June, concluding the government simply assumed that because one deepwater rig went up in flames, others were dangerous too. The Interior Department responded by imposing a second moratorium that its critics, including Ensco, claim was virtually identical to the first.
Ensco, which filed a lawsuit challenging the second moratorium, claims the government lifted it for tactical reasons.
“The only reason was to avoid the judicial review that might come from this court at any moment,” Feinberg said.
The Justice Department is asking Feldman to dismiss Ensco’s claims that the Obama administration has engaged in a “pattern and practice” of delaying the issuance of drilling permits.
“There isn’t any incentive to prevent drilling from going forward,” Montero said, adding that the three-month wait for applicants seeking permits “is the cost of doing business in a regulated industry.”
“The regulations are meant to promote safety. They are valid,” he said.
A trial for the case was scheduled to start July 25, but Feldman ordered the parties to settle on an earlier date, in mid-May.
“This dispute is almost a year old now and it involves issues of enormous public importance,” the judge said.