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Federal judge refuses to withdraw from drilling ban case for alleged conflict of interest

Judge Martin Feldman of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] on Friday refused to recuse himself [order, PDF] from a case in which he has already overturned a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling [JURIST report] issued last month by the Obama administration in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Earlier this month, environmental groups sought the removal of Feldman and relief of the preliminary injunction [motions, PDF] because of his personal investments in the oil industry. In the order refusing his recusal Feldman said, "The motion for disqualification is without merit." According to his 2008 financial disclosure report [text, PDF], Feldman owned stock in five companies directly or indirectly related to the offshore drilling business. The release of Feldman's 2009 financial holdings [text, PDF] also showed that the judge had owned stock in Exxon Mobil, one of the companies affected by the initial moratorium. Feldman claimed [WSJ report] he learned of his investments the day before his ruling and sold his stock the next morning.

Last week, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [official profile] issued a new six-month drilling moratorium [JURIST report], citing new evidence regarding safety concerns after the BP oil spill. Unlike the previously ordered moratorium, this one is not based on the depths at which drilling occurs, but affects drilling with specific technologies, which are most often used during deepshore drilling and will not affect shallow water drilling operations. Also last week, Government lawyers asked the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] to lift its order barring the previous moratorium [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] because the new plan had been filed. Earlier this month, the Obama administration filed a brief asking the court to reinstate the original offshore drilling ban [JURIST report] after Feldman issued his preliminary injunction [opinion, PDF; JURIST report]. The BP spill has now surpassed the Exxon Valdez oil spill [JURIST news archive] as the worst in US history.

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