Claims chief pledges fast payments, moratorium decision to come soon

NEW ORLEANS - The administrator of a $20 billion fund to compensate Gulf oil spill victims pledged Monday to speed payment of claims.

“We want to get the claims out quicker,” said Kenneth Feinberg, who was placed in charge of the fund by the White House. “We want to get these claims out with more transparency.”

Feinberg said many people are in desperate financial straits and need immediate relief.

The pledge came as a federal judge in New Orleans considers whether to lift a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

The lawsuit filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington claims the government’s moratorium was done arbitrarily and could cost Louisiana thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost wages. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Carl Rosenblum, added that the suspension of drilling could prove to be more economically devastating than the oil spill itself.

Government lawyers, however, said the Interior Department had shown that industry regulators need more time to study the risks of deepwater drilling and to identify ways to make it safer.

After hearing two hours of arguments Monday, Judge Martin Feldman said he will make his decision by Wednesday whether to overturn the moratorium.

President Barack Obama’s administration has struggled to show it is responding forcefully to the spill. Part of that effort led to the Interior Department halting the approval of new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended drilling at 33 exploratory wells.

Feinberg, who also ran the claim fund set up for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said BP has paid more than $100 million so far. Various estimates show that the total claims could be over $600 million.

BP said it has spent $2 billion fighting the oil spill and compensating victims in the last two months, with still no end in sight. Best case scenario still shows that it will likely be at least August before work on the two relief wells is finished. The relief wells are now the best chance of stopping the flow of oil.

In its latest released tally of response, BP states that it has paid out $105 million to 32,000 claimants. This figure does not include the $20 billion fund that BP agreed to create for residents and businesses hurt by the spill.

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