A federal district judge Thursday granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) to act within 30 days on five pending permit applications to drill wells in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

The decision by Judge Martin L.C. Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana noted that even after the Oct. 12 lifting of the Interior Department's second moratorium on deepwater Gulf drilling "permits for deepwater drilling activities have not been processed; little to no deepwater drilling has resumed."

The decision granted the petition of Ensco Offshore Co. and others regarding five permit applications in which Ensco holds a contractual stake. The permit applications were filed on April 30, July 27, Oct. 12 and Oct. 21. Feldman noted that prior to the Macondo well blowout, permits had been approved in two weeks.

The legal action came on the same day that the Marine Well Containment Co. successfully completed testing of its containment system in the Gulf, fulfilling the Interior Department's last requirement for Gulf reentry. With their obligations complete, industry groups note that it's time for the Interior Department to step up to the plate and end the de facto moratorium on drilling in the GOM (see related story).

Feldman said the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) requires the Interior Department to act "expeditiously" and "within a reasonable time" on permits. Noting that it has now been four months since the moratorium was lifted, the judge said that time had run out.

"As the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster draws near, any reason that would have justified delays has, under a rule of reason, expired," the decision said.

Feldman has issued previous decisions in opposition to Interior Department actions. He has twice approved preliminary injunctions against the department's moratoriums on offshore drilling (see Daily GPI, Feb. 4).

BOEM had argued that four of the permits in which Ensco was involved were not actually pending because the government had sent them back to have deficiencies corrected. One of the companies said it was not notified of any deficiencies. BOEM had contacted it merely to inform it that its application would move to the end of the queue because it had subleased a rig intended for the Gulf to French Guiana.

In Thursday's decision Feldman rescinded and vacated his previous decision blocking the injunction, saying that based on supplemental filings by the parties he had determined that the court had the right to set a timeframe for action.

©Copyright 2011 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.