On Tuesday, June 22, a federal judge in Louisiana temporarily issued an injunction against the Obama Administration’s six month moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling projects. The moratorium, enacted in response to BP’s devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was meant to prevent further high-risk exploration for fossil fuels pending the results of the federal investigation into safety and precautionary protocols and technologies throughout the industry. However, the district judge Martin Feldman found that the Department of the Interior made little effort to justify its recommendation of a “blanket” moratorium on drilling, noting that the several of the experts cited in the official Department report did not see the need for such a ban. This judge sympathized with the economic toll of the moratorium on the oil services industry and the local economy, represented here by the plaintiffs, and was “unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings [of the government’s report] and the immense scope of the moratorium.”
Apparently, the reality of over 60,000 gallons of oil per day spilling into the sensitive Gulf region – a lowball estimate – did not sufficiently justify the “asserted fear of threat of irreparable injury or safety hazards posed by the thirty-three permitted rigs.” At least, not for a judge with significant holdings in a broad portfolio of energy companies with money to lose from such a moratorium, including Transocean and Halliburton (the operators and manufacturers of the Deepwater rig, respectively). And this trend is not unique to Judge Feldman – over 50% of federal judges in districts affected by pending Gulf oil spill lawsuits have financial links to the oil industry. While the moratorium was lacking in timelines or parameters, this ruling will undoubtedly come back to haunt the public and our environment. The Administration has vowed to appeal the order and ask for a stay on the injunction pending said appeal, but it must go further. Indeed, even in the face of this unprecedented turmoil and the legal uncertainty surrounding the spill, BP is moving forward with what has been deemed as “the longest ‘extended reach’ well ever attempted”, a terribly risky endeavor located off the coast of Alaska. Do we need more blanket moratoriums to save ourselves?
Decisions like this really test the effectiveness of our system of upholding the law. As a self-monitoring profession, how do we ensure that conflicts of interest really don’t dampen the application of logic, law, and reason? Even if this judge is found to have violated an ethical rule, the decision happened; millions of people, and billions of dollars in ecological services are risked in the interim! Should environmental risks and reviews have added levels of accountability for lawyers and judges?