NEW ORLEANS — Companies that ferry people and supplies to offshore oil rigs asked a federal judge Monday to lift a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling projects imposed in the aftermath of the massive Gulf spill.
After hearing two hours of arguments, Judge Martin Feldman said he will decide by Wednesday whether to overturn the ban imposed by President Barack Obama's administration after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion off the Louisiana coast.
Also on Monday, BP said Monday it has spent $2 billion fighting the spill for the last two months and compensating victims, with no end in sight. It's likely to be at least August before crews finish two relief wells that are the best chance of stopping the flow of oil. [See the oil industry's 12 favorite lawmakers.]
The British oil giant released its latest tally of response costs, including $105 million paid out so far to 32,000 claimants. The figure does not include a $20 billion fund that BP PLC last week agreed to set up for Gulf residents and businesses hurt by the spill.
Kenneth Feinberg, who has been tapped by the White House to run the fund, said many people are in desperate financial straits and need immediate relief.
"Do not underestimate the emotionalism and the frustration and the anger of people in the Gulf uncertain of their financial future," he said.
Feinberg, who ran the claim fund set up for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said he is determined to speed payment of claims.
Shares of BP, which have lost about half their value since the April 20 oil rig disaster that killed 11 workers, fell nearly 3 percent Monday in New York trading to $30.86. The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. but run by BP.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward canceled a scheduled Tuesday appearance at a London oil conference, citing his commitment to the Gulf relief effort. The last-minute pullout followed stinging criticism of Hayward's attendance at a yacht race on the Isle of Wight off the coast of southern England on Saturday.
The Obama administration has also been struggling to show it is responding forcefully to the spill, which has gushed anywhere from 68 million to 126 millions of oil into the Gulf.
As part of that effort, the Interior Department halted the approval of any new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended drilling at 33 existing exploratory wells in the Gulf.
But a lawsuit filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, La., claims the government arbitrarily imposed the moratorium without any proof that the operations posed a threat. Hornbeck says the moratorium could cost Louisiana thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost wages.
Plaintiffs' attorney Carl Rosenblum said the six-month suspension of drilling work could prove more economically devastating than the spill itself.
"This is an unprecedented industrywide shutdown. Never before has the government done this," Rosenblum told the judge Monday.
Government lawyers said the Interior Department has demonstrated that industry regulators need more time to study the risks of deepwater drilling and identify ways to make it safer.
"The safeguards and regulations in place on April 20 did not create a sufficient margin of safety," said Justice Department attorney Guillermo Montero.
Feldman asked a government lawyer why the Interior Department decided to suspend deepwater drilling after the rig explosion when it didn't bar oil tankers from Alaskan waters after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 or take similar actions in the wake of other industrial accidents.
"The Deepwater Horizon blowout was a game-changer," Montero said. "It really illustrates the risks that are inherent in deepwater drilling."
Feldman asked Rosenblum if it's true that a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing by Hornbeck suggests "basically things are pretty good" for the company and it can survive the moratorium. Rosenblum said the full impact of the shutdown cannot be calculated.
"Thousands of businesses will be affected," he said. "These dominoes are falling as we speak."