Deepwater drilling moratorium: the legal fight


The overwhelming difficulty of putting a lid on disaster when a deepwater oil well blows is reason enough to ban drilling at depths of more than 500 feet, at least while the safety concerns are being examined. But the federal courts have disagreed so far, ordering an immediate end to the Obama administration’s six-month deepwater drilling moratorium, which affected 33 floating rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason the wells have the potential for catastrophes like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill appears to be that the technology for preventing major blowouts at those depths is less than fully reliable. But the judge in the case found the administration’s reasoning overly broad — why had it specified 500 feet or more? why not 450 or 600? — and a higher court refused to reinstate the ban.

The rigs currently drilling in depths greater than 500 feet use the same subsurface blowout preventer that has been implicated as a probable contributor to the BP spill. The courts should have acknowledged that logic to begin with, and the Obama administration made the right decision not to back down, instead instituting a new moratorium this week that tightens the argument. This time, the ban isn’t based on the depth of the water at the drilling site but on the kinds of blowout preventers the rigs use. It covers the same 33 rigs.


Of course, the courts might strike down this moratorium as well. The 11,000 jobs affected by a halt in drilling are a weighty counterargument to the drilling safety issue. As painful as the loss of those jobs would be to the workers, their families and the region’s economy, though, the necessity of safeguarding the ocean while the BP spill is thoroughly investigated surmounts the immediate economic concerns.

It’s not just the billions of dollars in damage already caused that makes the moratorium a necessity, or the long years of environmental recovery ahead — if some species are able to recover fully at all. Despite the reassurances of BP and other major oil companies, both BP’s response to the spill and last month’s congressional hearings on deepwater drilling (which revealed that all the companies’ safety plans mentioned the same nonexistent walruses in the Gulf of Mexico) made it clear that the industry has not figured out how to secure wells at these depths or respond effectively to major emergencies. Ironically, nothing illustrates this more than the cap that at least temporarily ended the flow of oil into the gulf Thursday — 85 days after it started.

Though the moratorium might harm the livelihoods of thousands of Americans, the nation’s best interests lie in a thorough investigation and the tight oversight of new, safer technologies — if they can be found —before high-risk oil operations can resume.