Deepwater Drilling Ban Lifted ... for Now

An offshore oil platform was visible from an Alabama beach in April. Jeff Haller / Keyhole Photo-Corbis

The White House was certainly not pleased Tuesday morning to learn that a Louisiana judge had decided to lift the six-month ban on deepwater drilling that Obama had ordered in the wake of the gulf spill. With Judge Martin Feldman’s pen, the 33 deepwater rigs that had been called to port were authorized to continue their efforts to access oil and gas miles below the surface.

Since the Deepwater Horizon gusher was partially capped earlier this month, cable-news cameras have turned from the environmental impact to the economic. Halted drilling, according to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and others, has sent shock waves through coastal communities, many of which thrive on drilling revenues and industry jobs. The ban in place for the rest of the year, he said, will bring more economic devastation to his state than the impact of the spill itself.

Feldman’s objection, which the White House vowed Tuesday afternoon to appeal immediately, is not on any technical grounds. His main reasoning is that the Interior Department didn’t provide adequate reasoning for halting ongoing drilling—even though the reason for the temporary ban is obviously the epic gusher still polluting the Gulf Coast some 60 days after the accident.

It amounts to a stalemate of reasoning. Feldman and the Louisiana-based drilling company he sided with claim that just because Deepwater Horizon ran into problems, it doesn’t mean there’s any evidence that other deepwater rigs in the gulf are also operating at high risk.

Technically, that’s true.

But Obama and Interior officials have argued that there’s no evidence to prove that the other rigs don’t pose a threat. And if that’s the standard, Deepwater Horizon showed no obvious signs of danger in the months before the incident, making it highly unlikely that another Deepwater-like event could be foreseen.

Technically, that’s also true.

It is, in essence, competing views of the same philosophy of restraint. It’s a common stalling technique in Washington to argue that we should avoid making big decisions until all the facts are in, even though all the facts rarely, if ever, come in. Obama placed the ban to halt any big decisions before an investigation, and Judge Feldman lifted the ban for the exact same reason. Both strategies have enormous implications and risks, meaning that when the White House says it will keep fighting to reinstitute the ban, it means it.