The Obama administration should not have been held in contempt for continuing a drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico over a judge’s injunction, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar placed the moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf one week after the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
A month later, the department issued a “May Directive” imposing a six-month moratorium on drilling operations in the Gulf. The department represented that seven engineering experts had peer-reviewed this policy, but it was later found that five of the seven experts never recommended the moratorium.
Hornbeck Offshore, which owns a fleet of vessels that support deepwater exploration, sued the Salazar in federal court, claiming that the moratorium was neither adequately explained nor justified.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldmean agreed, and granted a preliminary injunction against the ban in June 2010.
Within weeks, the Interior Department issued a second moratorium that purportedly included a more thorough explanation its necessity. Offshore drilling companies criticized it, however, as being nearly identical to the first.
Feldman held the Department of the Interior in contempt for this move, finding that “each step the government took following the court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance.”
He also awarded Hornbeck $530,000 in fees and costs.
On Tuesday, a divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed the contempt finding and the fee award.