NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge who overturned a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling imposed after the Gulf oil spill refused Thursday to put his ruling on hold while the government appeals.
The Justice Department had asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman to delay his ruling until the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans can review it. Feldman rejected that request Thursday.
Meanwhile, BP said it enlisted the help of James Lee Witt, an Arkansas native and former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration who has become known as an expert in disaster response.
Bob Dudley, BP’s new point man for the oil response, said he asked Witt to go to New Orleans to review what the company is doing and how it can improve its response to the spill.
Dudley said Witt is offering BP “an independent overview” on the response and ideas for the future.
A spokesman for Witt in Washington confirmed that Witt had met with Dudley on Thursday, but said it would bepremature for Witt to discuss his assessment of the oil spill and BP’s response to it.
“We are hoping to help them, but we don’t have a contract yet,” said the spokesman, Kim Fuller.
Even if a contract were in place, she said, it would “defeat the purpose to say anything” before Witt could see for himself what is going on in the Gulf.
“We’ll know more on Monday,” Fuller said.
Earlier this month, Witt, one of the nation’s top disaster experts, said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the oil spill is “devastating not just for the Gulf Coast area but for the entire United States.
In the interview, which appeared June 3, Witt praised the government’s response. “They were on top of it pretty fast.”
But he also acknowledged the “anger and frustration” over the inability to stop the leak, which is putting pressure on the Obama administration.
Witt has met with Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and the U.S. Coast Guard to discuss Louisiana’s strategy for diverting and collecting oil washing up on its coastline. His firm also is one of severaldisaster-management firms under contract with Escambia County, Fla., to help that western-most county on the Florida Panhandle prepare for a mass of oil.
Speaking with reporters in Washington, Dudley also said a relief well being drilled in the Gulf is advancing.
He said he’s confident that the spill will be plugged by the end of August.
In the Gulf, a deep-sea robot bumped into the cap collecting oil from the well, forcing a temporary halt Wednesday to BP’s best effort yet to contain the leak. The cap was back in place Thursday.
BP said Thursday that it was gradually ramping back up to capture about 16,600 barrels a day with the cap, and burning off an additional 10,400 barrels a day using an incinerator ship. Worst-case government estimates are that about 60,000 barrels a day are leaking from the well, though no one really knows for sure. A barrel equals 42 gallons.
By mid- to late July, the company hopes to have the capacity to capture up to 78,500 barrels a day, if that much is flowing, BP spokesman John Curry said.
On Tuesday, Feldman, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, struck down the Interior Department’s moratorium that halted approval of new permits for deep-water projects and suspended drilling on 33 exploratory wells. Feldman concluded that the government simply assumed that because one deep-water rig went up in flames, others were dangerous too.
The moratorium was imposed after the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Oil has been gushing from the blown-out well ever since.
The Justice Department said in court papers that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has instructed all employees not to enforce the moratorium. Rig operators are getting letters that say suspension notices they received have no legal effect right now.
But the Justice Department argues that delaying Feldman’s ruling would eliminate the risk of another drilling accident while new safety equipment standards and procedures are considered.
Feldman had agreed to hold an emergency hearing by phone Thursday on a motion filed by several oil-field service companies who say the Obama administration is ignoring his ruling.
But the judge informed attorneys only minutes before the call that he would rule without hearing oral arguments. The hearing would not have been open to the public.
Separately, a number of environmental groups asked the court to release additional information about Feldman’s financial interests.
The judge’s financial disclosure report for 2008, the most recent available, shows holdings in at least eight petroleum companies or funds that invest in them, including Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon. The report shows that most of his holdings were valued at less than $15,000; it did not provide specific amounts.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Kunzelman, Pete Yost, Fred Frommer, Matthew Daly, Lisa Leff, Cara Rubinsky, Cain Burdeau, Holbrook Mohr and Dave Martin of The Associated Press and by Noel E. Oman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Front Section, Pages 2 on 06/25/2010