Sunday, June 20, 2010

Times Picayune: Drill Baby, Drill

The dreadful conundrum facing Louisiana's oil-drenched future is reflected in the following Manuel Torres editorial in The Times-Picayune. Big Oil's economic impact on the state gives it carte blanche to run roughshod over all opposition. If drilling cannot be done safely, the writer implies, it needs to be done anyway because jobs are involved. But what about all the livelihoods, and the way of life, being destroyed by this industry, which will ony exist at the most for a few decades more in the most optimistic of assessments?

Here's the column:

Louisianians understand that deepwater drilling is central to our economy; we know that the jobs provided by this industry go far beyond those on the rigs themselves -- more than twice as many people in oil-related jobs earn their livings on tugboats and supply boats and in shipyards, helipads, catering kitchens and other places on shore.

It doesn't take an economist to see what shutting down the rigs for half a year will do to all those jobs and the people who hold them.

But President Barack Obama doesn't seem to get it. His administration fails to grasp how Louisiana's economy works or what the six-month halt to exploratory drilling that the White House has ordered will do to people who earn their living from this critical activity. Either that, or his administration is determined to disregard the economic annihilation that its shutdown will cause.

The announcement this week of a $100 million compensation fund for rig workers affected by the moratorium is striking proof of this administration's myopia. In all, 18,000 to 24,000 jobs related to the 30 shuttered rigs across the Gulf are in jeopardy from the drilling moratorium. But this fund, which BP agreed to provide, targets only 6,000 to 8,000 Gulf Coast residents who work on the rigs themselves. Those workers make an average of $2,400 a week, counting benefits, which means the fund could dry up in as little as six weeks, with months left before the moratorium ends.

According to the LSU Center for Energy Studies, Louisiana residents account for 3,339 of rig workers who are likely to lose their jobs, but another 7,656 Louisianians who work in jobs related to drilling also face likely layoffs. That's 10,955 people who stand to lose their source of income, joining the fishers, shrimpers, oyster harvesters, charter boat operators, seafood processors, restaurateurs and many others whose livelihoods have already succumbed to the oil spill.

The Obama administration succeeded in persuading BP to set up a $20 billion compensation fund for economic losses caused by this unprecedented disaster, and that's a crucial step toward ensuring our recovery from this environmental nightmare. But it remains unclear whether workers left in the lurch by the moratorium will be able to get help from this fund.

Nor will the damage end when the moratorium is over. The harsh reality is that many deepwater rigs are likely to abandon the Gulf of Mexico for places like Brazil and western Africa. After spending millions to move a rig, it's unlikely that a company will rush back to the Gulf. That leaves support workers with little prospect of getting their jobs back. Over half of rig workers could keep their jobs if they are willing to endure greater separations of time and distance from their families. But the rest won't be given that choice.

President Obama said that he stressed the plight of Gulf Coast families in a private conversation with BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg.

"A lot of these folks don't have a cushion,'' the president said he told the chairman. "They were coming off Rita and Katrina, coming off the worst economy that this country has seen since the Great Depression, and this season was going to be the season where they were going to be bouncing back.''

Understanding the human face of those affected by the oil spill is vital, and President Obama was right to make that point in his meeting with BP officials. But Louisiana and other Gulf Coast residents whose jobs are now imperiled by their own government's action deserve no less from the president. They, too, lived through the storms of 2005. They, too, have struggled through a tough economy. Moreover, workers in jobs that support drilling make less money than those who work on the rigs. Now they face the prospect of joblessness, and so far, all that most of them can count on when the pink slips arrive is an unemployment check from the state.

President Obama has not heeded the voices urging him to reconsider the scope of the moratorium. Those include engineering and oil industry experts consulted by the administration, who are calling the broad moratorium a mistake that could cause more harm to the economy than the spill itself. They had endorsed different steps such as a moratorium on new drilling permits. They suggested a briefer halt at existing rigs, so that safety tests could be conducted.

That's still a viable strategy. A more nuanced approach would be far wiser and more compassionate than the punishing shutdown that the White House has ordered.

President Obama also needs to show that he's willing to learn about Louisiana's economic underpinnings. He missed an opportunity when he failed to appoint someone with that kind of knowledge to the commission that is investigating the BP spill.

Louisianians also need clarity on whether the $20 billion compensation fund will encompass losses caused by the moratorium. The White House has said that it expects BP to pay all claims for lost wages related to the moratorium.

At the very least, Gulf Coast oil industry workers who are worried about how they will pay their bills without jobs should have the assurance that their losses will be treated no differently than those of their neighbors.

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