Judge rules in case involving drilling permits

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge refused yesterday to order government regulators to speed up processing deepwater drilling permit applications now that they have lifted a moratorium imposed after the massive Gulf oil spill.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said it’s unclear whether the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must approve or reject drilling permit applications within a specific time frame.

Ensco Offshore Company, an offshore services company, claims the government has wrongfully delayed the issuance of permits for deepwater drilling since it lifted a moratorium on the projects in October.

During a hearing Wednesday, a company lawyer noted that offshore operators have submitted 13 permit applications for drilling activities that were barred under the moratorium, and none have been approved in the past three months. The attorney, Adam Feinberg, suggested Feldman could rule that BOEM must process these applications within 30 days.

Feldman, however, said he isn’t prepared to set deadlines for the government to act on five pending permit applications in which Ensco has a contractual stake. He denied Ensco’s motion for a preliminary injunction “without prejudice,” which means the company can renew its request at a later date.

Ensco “fails to show how the public interest weighs in favor of granting a preliminary injunction because this court’s authority to order time-sensitive permits needs more briefing,” the judge wrote in his 29-page ruling.

A lawyer and spokeswoman for Ensco didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment on the ruling.

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.

A trial for the case is scheduled to start May 16.

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