Interior may appeal ruling on drilling permits

Last month, judge ruled that the department must make decisions on five permits.

The Interior Department says it will explore its options for appealing a federal judge's decision requiring the department to make decisions on five pending deep-water drilling permits within 30 days.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, addressing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a budget hearing Thursday, said he disagrees with the ruling.

"The judge in this particular case, in my view, is wrong, and we will argue the case because I don't believe that the court has the jurisdiction to basically tell the Department of Interior what my administrative responsibilities are," Salazar said.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman of Louisiana ordered the department on February 17 to make decisions regarding five deep-water drilling permits within a 30-day period. While the department goes over its options for appeal, an Interior spokesperson told National Journal Daily, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement is proceeding with reviewing all permit applications to ensure they meet safety standards.

The spokesperson said the judge did not explicitly order BOEMRE to issue all five permits, just to review them promptly.

This week, Interior granted the first deep-water permit since last year's BP oil spill. That permit is not among the five included in the judge's ruling, an Interior Department spokesperson confirmed. National Journal learned on Tuesday that BP owns nearly half of the newly approved Noble Energy well.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources members expressed their desire for speedy permitting Wednesday.

"If you look at the amount of oil that could be produced, the moratorium is probably costing the United States 200,000 barrels of new supply and maybe up to 680,000 of barrels per day if it lasts for a couple years," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Pressing Salazar, Portman said domestic production is becoming increasingly important "as energy prices are going up and foreign oil is becoming even more expensive," and he asked, "How quickly can we get oil production back?"

But Salazar assured Portman and the panel that more permits are on their way, and soon.

"There are other deep-water permits that are pending, and the ones that will go out the door will hopefully be the templates that will allow us to move forward with an additional significant number of deep-water permits," Salazar said.

BOEMRE confirmed that additional permits are coming.

"Director [Michael] Bromwich has consistently said we expect to issue more permits in the next weeks, but there are a very small amount of pending permits," BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz told National Journal Daily.