JEAN LAFITTE, La. — Towering offshore oil rigs and refineries thick with holding tanks are as ubiquitous to Louisiana as bald cypress swamps and shrimp boats plying the bayou.
Even with a gusher of raw crude from a busted rig in the Gulf of Mexico marring the state’s coastline, killing marine life and idling fishermen, there remains unrelenting support for the oil industry. And sharp opposition to President Barack Obama’s decision to halt deepwater drilling for six months until a presidential commission investigates.
“Don’t pick on us, it’s not fair,” said Perry Clement, 52, a part-time shrimper, welder and electrician who lost his job installing artificial oyster reefs to the oil spill, but still supports drilling. “You can’t stop. That’s what we do here.”
Oil is as much a way of life as fishing and shrimping along Barataria Bay, the area worst hit by the spill. Many families have ties to both industries, dating back generations: Grand Isle’s Dean Blanchard, who runs one of the largest shrimp distributors in the country, had one grandfather in the oil business; the other was a shrimper. His father and a brother are oil men and Blanchard himself worked the rigs as a high schooler. The eruption in the Gulf is strangling his business and that of his fellow shrimpers, he says, but a chill on drilling would hurt even more.
“We’re suffering enough without others suffering,” said Blanchard, who accuses BP of cutting corners on its rig and has challenged company chief Tony Hayward to a charity boxing match. “We’ve not had other accidents. Why should my father and my brother suffer because of BP?”
Even those without family ties to the industry contend oil and gas are vital to the state’s economy and the offshore rigs are even popular with fish, which seek shelter and food among the steel supports.
“You tie your boat to the oil rig and drop a line,” said Jim Dry, 54, a Baton Rouge resident, who backs oil drilling even as the spill upended his son’s bachelor party at the family camp on Grand Isle. With beaches closed, Dry set up kiddie pools on the front lawn and stocked up on soft-shell blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay and pond shrimp from Texas.
As for the weekend’s activities which were to have included several charter boat trips: “What are we going to do? You’re looking at it,” Dry joked, motioning to the cold beer in his hand.
“The moratorium?” Dry said. “That’s just PR. Until people in Michigan and Ohio and all over stop driving, stop flying, we need the oil. We’ve lived with it before and we’ll live with it again.”
Even the beloved New Orleans Saints are tied to the oil and gas industry: Saints’ owner John Mecom Jr. is said to have picked the team’s black-and-gold color scheme in honor of the business that made his family rich in Texas: black gold.
Shell Oil is a major sponsor of the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival held every September in Morgan City, and Port Fourchon, the state’s southernmost port, bills itself as the Gulf’s “Energy Connection.”
Callers to WWL-AM 870, the New Orleans radio station that can be heard clear to Mobile Bay, Ala., filled the phone lines all week to voice opposition to banning deepwater drilling.
Afternoon host John “Spud” McConnell — who dubbed the moratorium an “overreaction to BP” — told listeners on his “Talk Gumbo” show that an unofficial station poll found 84 percent of callers opposed to a drilling ban.
“Every one of those rigs is going to go somewhere else and we won’t get them back for 10 or 20 years,” McConnell told listeners. “They’re going to go to Nigeria, to Brazil, and we’ll never see them again.”
The state’s politicians are largely opposed to the moratorium, from Gov. Bobby Jindal to local parish council members.
“There’s been tens of thousands of wells that have been drilled. Just because one company comes in and does something negligent, do you punish them all?” asked Jefferson Parish councilman Chris Roberts, a partner in a local automotive dealership. “We certainly don’t think that it’s in our best interest. We’ve already suffered real damage to the seafood industry and now you’re talking about hurting one of the other lifelines that we have.”
The stance is particularly frustrating to the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group whose priorities include limiting offshore oil and gas exploration.
“I understand that the oil industry creates jobs and makes significant campaign contributions, but sacrificing our health, our natural resources and the communities which rely on them is a false choice and, in the long-term, a deal with the devil,” the group’s executive director Cynthia Sarthou wrote on its website.
“Oil and gas are king,” said Aaron Viles, the network’s campaign director. “Even though we are right now watching the very clear cost of that coronation, no one in political leadership is stepping up. This catastrophe has done very little to change the political reality.”
Jeff Landry, a Republican running for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Melancon, who is running for Senate, called the moratorium “nothing short of a domestic attack on our economy.”
Jindal, in a June 2 letter, urged Obama to “move quickly” to review offshore drilling activities, saying a six-month suspension could have a “severe economic impact” in a state already suffering from the oil spill. Jindal warned that the moratorium creates a “significant risk” that many of the platforms — and the jobs that come with them — could relocate to other oil-rich areas of the world.
“During one of the most challenging economic periods in decades, the last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more,” Jindal wrote.
The state’s Department of Economic Development estimates that suspending active drilling could result in the loss of 3,000 to 6,000 jobs in the next two to three weeks, and as many as 10,000 Louisiana jobs within six months.
Should the rigs move elsewhere, the department says it could lose more than 20,000 existing and potential new jobs.
Echoing Jindal, the state’s largest newspaper, The Times-Picayune, called the moratorium a “potentially devastating blow” in a Saturday editorial, and urged Obama to “speed up (the commission’s) review to minimize our economic distress.”
Obama heard the pleas firsthand on his third visit to the state last Friday. Terry Vegas, who has been shrimping off Grand Isle for 46 years, told the president that area residents support the oil industry.
“We’re not bitter at the oil companies for what’s happening,” said Vegas, whose grandfather was a shrimper. “We’re just bitter at those that cut the corners and caused the havoc that we’re having right now.”
Obama, who offered no promises on cutting short the moratorium, but told reporters that the commission could “front load” its analysis of what went wrong, told Vegas the oil companies must “support you the same way you support them.
“We’re still going to need the oil production,” Obama told Vegas. “But we’ve got to make sure that we do it in the right way, because we just can’t have a situation like this happen again.”