Revived Push for Drilling Ban


The Obama administration asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to reinstate a moratorium on deepwater petroleum drilling, saying it is needed to reduce the chance of a second spill similar to the one now spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

The fallout from that spill, the result of an April 20 explosion on a drilling rig leased by BP PLC, was evident in the Gulf region Tuesday, as tar balls lapped onto the Texas coast and oil was sighted in New Orleans’s Lake Pontchartrain.

The developments show how the spill continues to invade new areas along the Gulf, harming coastal marshes and endangering fish and wildlife.

In a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Justice Department officials said a six-month suspension of drilling in more than 500 feet of water is in the “long-term public interest of the nation,” and is needed to give the Interior Department time to develop and implement new regulations to prevent another spill.

The filing was in response to a federal judge’s decision in June to block the moratorium, saying the Interior Department had trivialized the economic impact of the temporary ban.

The state of Mississippi has ordered eight French skimmers with pumps, turbines and sweeping arms to help in the Gulf of Mexico cleanup. And a “super skimmer” could be a savior. Video courtesy of Reuters.

In the filing, the administration cited not only the “catastrophic impacts” of the accident on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig but also the risk of a second spill, “which industry has shown limited ability to contain.”

“Interior had to take immediate action to minimize the risk of another spill, especially while efforts to contain and clean up this one are ongoing,” the motion says. “The stakes are even higher now that it is hurricane season.”

Attorneys for the government and Hornbeck Offshore Services LLC—an offshore oil-services provider that challenged the moratorium—are scheduled to square off on Thursday before a panel of judges assigned to the Fifth Circuit.

In its filing Tuesday, the Justice Department said federal law requires Interior to conclude that there is “a threat of serious or irreparable harm to the marine or coastal or human environment,” and not to balance the risk of such harm against the economic harm from the moratorium.

In Louisiana, many politicians have said the ban is crippling an economy already walloped by curtailed fishing and a loss of tourism.

A new effect of the spill was discovered late Monday with tar balls and oil sheen sighted in the Rigolets, one of the waterways connecting the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartrain, which borders the northern edge of New Orleans. Some oil also had made it to the lake, according to the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center in New Orleans.

After decades of neglect left it choked with pollution, the 630-square-mile lake was cleaned up in the 1990s and has since become a popular fishing and boating destination.

On Monday, crews tried to protect the lake by placing barges and protective piping called boom at a choke point in the Rigolets.

In Texas, the seven gallons of tar balls found over the weekend on beaches were confirmed as originating from the oil spill, but investigators were still not sure how they got to Texas, according to a Coast Guard spokesman. The tar balls were lightly weathered, and investigators speculated that the tar had come from the bottoms of boats bringing oil collected from the spill to Texas for processing.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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