Saturday, July 03, 2010

Judge Lifts Injunction on Drilling Moratorium

In the Gulf

Judge lifts injunction on drilling moratorium

By Gene Clancy
Published Jul 2, 2010 8:11 AM

Last weekend British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward took a break. As sticky, gooey oil continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, he watched the yacht he owns race in an event called (no kidding!) the “J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.”

The mainstream media in the U.S. were aghast. Within days, BP announced that Hayward was being replaced by Bob Dudley, an “American” executive of BP, to head the public response and cleanup efforts in the Gulf region. The media forgot to mention that the yacht race’s sponsor, JP Morgan, has a 40 percent stake in BP or that more than 50 percent of the company’s stock is U.S. owned.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, which had previously accused BP of cutting corners and putting profits ahead of the safety of workers and the environment, announced that the moratorium on new deepwater drilling imposed by President Barack Obama was severely limiting its operations in the Gulf.

Until the BP catastrophe, Exxon held the dubious distinction of causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history — the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

A few days later, Federal Judge Martin Feldman of New Orleans blocked Obama’s six-month moratorium.

An oily judge

Some environmentalists were surprised by Feldman’s order mainly because Obama’s moratorium was moderate and very limited. It only forbade exploratory drilling in the deepest water, about which little is currently known.

Six months actually seems like a short period in which to determine the causes of such a catastrophe as the BP explosion and constant leak. The administration immediately announced that it would appeal, but on June 24 Feldman refused to put his ruling on hold.

Financial statements released by Feldman in 2009 reveal that he was heavily invested in the oil and gas industry. Among his holdings is Transocean, the leasing company involved in the BP disaster. Others include EV Energy Partners, an oil and gas exploration firm; Enterprise Products Partners, which builds onshore and offshore pipelines; Energy Transfer, which also builds pipelines; Basic Energy Services; Provident Energy; Petrohawk Energy; Valero Energy, an oil refiner; Crosstex Energy, a natural-gas provider; and (significantly) ExxonMobil.

But Judge Feldman is not alone. An Associated Press analysis found that more than half of the federal judges in districts where the bulk of Gulf oil disaster-related lawsuits are pending have financial connections to the oil and gas industry. Finding judges without conflicts to hear the cases will be difficult, if not impossible.

Federal judicial rules require judges to disqualify themselves from hearing cases involving a company in which they have a direct financial interest. Feldman claims that he divested himself of some (but not all) of his energy holdings before issuing his injunction. This is like a police officer taking off his Ku Klux Klan robe just before making an arrest. It doesn’t mean much.

Injunctions, corporations and the Constitution

The use of court injunctions (which are basically orders issued by a judge) has been and remains a potent weapon of the bosses against unions and progressive causes. It seems incredible that a federal judge like Feldman — appointed by President Ronald Reagan more than 20 years ago, elected by no one and acting at the behest of a single industry — has just overruled an order of the president of the United States who was elected less than two years ago by an overwhelming majority of voters.

Something can and must be done. In February another federal judge (ironically recently appointed by Obama) issued an injunction against demonstrators who for more than a year have occupied another environmental disaster site: a mountaintop removal coal strip mine in West Virginia.

The site is the property of Massey Energy, the coal company responsible for the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine earlier this year. Judge Irene C. Berger felt it necessary to issue the injunction because the protesters, ignoring a previous injunction, had “prevented Massey Energy from mining coal from the site for over a year.” (Charleston Gazette, Feb. 1)

It is mass actions such as this that are needed to truly protect the workers and the environment in the Gulf region.
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