Would a Drilling Ban Be a Double-Whammy for the Gulf?

Locals fear that region heavily dependant on oil industry lacks alternatives for sustaining hard-pressed economy

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By Chris Kromm, Facing South

Here in New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman issued a sharply-worded ruling overturning the Obama administration’s 6-month moratorium on deep water drilling. Nationally, the decision provoked a wave of triumphalism among drilling advocates and frustration for environmentalists.

Yet here in the Gulf Coast, many community leaders have a more nuanced reaction to the moratorium debate. In the wake of the BP disaster, they know first-hand the enormous risks posed by the poorly regulated offshore oil industry.

But in a region where the economic devastation of Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav is a fresh memory — now compounded by billions of dollars lost from idled fishing boats and lost tourism revenues — the prospect of losing oil jobs and dollars is viewed with just as much fear.

This dependence on offshore oil — and the economic havoc that a moratorium could trigger — was a key part of Judge Feldman’s decision overturning the moratorium. The 22-page opinion argued that the Obama administration hadn’t proved that all deep water rigs posed a danger as great as BP’s failed Deepwater Horizon rig, and that the Obama administration was "capricious" in penalizing other drillers for BP’s mistake.

Irreparable Harm?

But the biggest factor for Judge Feldman — a 78-year-old Reagan appointee — seemed to be the "irreparable harm" a moratorium would ostensibly cause to the Gulf and national economy that depend on offshore drilling:

The effect on employment, jobs, loss of domestic energy supplies caused by the moratorium as the plaintiffs (and other suppliers, and the rigs themselves) lose business, and the movement of the rigs to other sites around the world will clearly ripple throughout the economy in this region. […]

An invalid agency decision to suspend drilling of wells in depths of over 500 feet simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region, and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country.

Feldman’s opinion was vague about the "irreparable harm" posed by the moratorium. While it points to the jobs (150,000) and oil (31% of domestic oil production) flowing from offshore operations in the gulf, it doesn’t acknowledge that Obama’s moratorium only affected 33 offshore projects — a tiny fraction of the 3,600 structures in the Gulf and therefore the jobs and oil coming from the area.

And Judge Feldman’s opinion never even mentions the economic costs that deep water drilling entails. As environmental groups noted in a press release condemning the decision:

According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the Gulf Coast tourism industry is worth approximately $20 billion per year and Gulf Coast fish, shellfish, shrimp and oysters have a value of about $1 billion per year. Recreational fisheries in Western Florida alone contributed $5.65 billion in sales to the regional economy as well as supporting 54,600 jobs, and the commercial seafood industry in Florida generated $5.7 billion in total sales and supported 108,600 jobs.

Community leaders here in the Gulf understand this delicate balance between economic, environmental and even cultural interests, where working on oil rigs has been a way of life for generations.

Take the case of Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, who took Facing South on a 5-hour boat tour of Gulf areas affected by the spill. He’s frequently joined forces with environmentalists in battling threats to the ocean and coastal wetlands, and he’s been a fierce critic of BP’s actions.

But like many in the region, he’s also seen it from both sides: He worked for years in the offshore oil industry, including a stint at a facility owned by BP. Many of his friends and family have done the same.

"I’m just as angry as anyone at BP and what the oil industry has done to these waters," said Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association in a 5-hour tour he gave us of areas impacted by the spill. "But to just shut down offshore drilling without putting anything in its place doesn’t make any sense."

First, Economic Alternatives to Oil Needed

Many environmentalists here in the Gulf agree, saying that any talk about stopping offshore drilling has to address how central the industry is to the coast. "Environmentalists nationally don’t have a clue about the culture of offshore drilling in the Gulf," said a long-time environmental advocate in New Orleans. "They say they want us to go ‘beyond oil,’ but how does that help us with the BP spill and those who depend on oil industry jobs?"

The need for economic alternatives in the Gulf is especially clear now. Across the coast, one can still find evidence of the economic devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav. The BP spill has shut down fishing operations in nearly 40% of the Gulf and thrown communities the rely on shrimp, crab, oyster and other fishing operations into chaos.

Without other economic options, the prospect of a drilling ban is held in dim view.

"It’s a human rights issue," said David Gauthe of the community group Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing. "Until you really have these ‘green jobs’ in place, ready to hire people right away, a drilling ban is just a double-whammy for communities that are already hurting."

(Republished with permission of Facing South)