Federal judge holds Obama administration in contempt over drilling “permitorium”

When Judge Martin Feldman ordered the federal government to end its moratorium on deep-sea drilling, he actually meant it.  In a ruling earlier today, the federal judge in New Orleans has held the Obama administration in contempt for its “defiance” in reimposing the moratorium through other means:

The Obama Administration acted in contempt by continuing its deepwater drilling moratorium after the policy was struck down, a New Orleans judge ruled.

Interior Department regulators acted with “determined disregard” by lifting and reinstituting a series of policy changes that restricted offshore drilling, following the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, U.S. District Judge, Martin Feldman of New Orleans ruled yesterday.

“Each step the government took following the court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance,” Feldman said in the ruling.

“Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the re- imposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium, and in light of the national importance of this case, provide this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt,” Feldman said.

The government has not issued a permit to drill in nine months, evidence that the White House has attempted to evade Feldman’s orders.  The lawsuit alleges that thousands of jobs have been lost in the “permitorium,” as some have dubbed the policy, and that the loss of American production has hiked costs and made the US more dependent than ever on imports.  It also drove investment in exploration out of the US and into places like Brazil.  The economic damage from the permitorium will take years to reverse, as major rigs have already departed the Gulf.

Feldman ruled that the government had to pay the legal fees for the lawsuit, which are “substantial,” according to the firm handling it.  That means taxpayers get the bill both ways.

What legal impact does a contempt ruling have on an administration?  Not much, although a failure to comply with court orders could eventually lead to removing Ken Salazar from his post at Interior, if Congress gets fed up enough with it.  It will likely have a great deal more political impact, though — and certainly will provide House Oversight chair Darrell Issa with a new issue to investigate.