A political debate plays out among Louisiana oil rigs


LAFAYETTE, La. — Visitors to this oil town might be forgiven for wondering whether the BP oil spill and subsequent drilling moratorium ever happened. “Now hiring” signs are plastered on billboards around town, and hotels such as the Crowne Plaza are chock full of seminars training students to work on offshore rigs. Many offshore companies can’t find enough workers for the jobs they’re listing. This parish has the lowest unemployment rate in Louisiana, 4.8%.

Such is the opportunity on the offshore rigs that Sheila Clark, whose husband, Donald, died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion two years ago, said her 22-year-old son recently asked her how she’d feel if he went to work on a rig.

“I can’t stop him,” said Clark, who moved to Baton Rouge after her husband’s death. “He wants to make a good living for himself.”

The Obama administration takes credit for this sea change in an area that was all but closed during a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling in 2010.

“There are politicians who say that if we just drilled more, then gas prices would come down right away,” President Obama said last month in the Rose Garden. “What they don’t say is that we have been drilling more.”

But companies here complain about a sluggish permit process, and say the hiring signs are up because so many workers left town during the moratorium that there’s now a worker shortage. When Mitt Romney came to Louisiana this spring, he picked up on their complaints.

Obama “made it harder to get energy in America and so he shouldn’t be taking credit for that,” Romney said, standing on a natural gas rig.

As gas prices fluctuate and the economy remains stagnant, energy is becoming one of the more contentious issues in the 2012 campaign. House Democrats introduced a bill that would pay for lower-interest student loans by ending tax subsidies to oil companies. Republicans accuse Democrats of hampering energy production by blocking the Keystone pipeline.

Romney spoke to supporters in front of an oil derrick in the swing state of Colorado last week, criticizing Obama for “outdated” energy policies.

“I’m going to open up [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]; I’m going to get drilling in the gulf going again; I’m going to make sure we drill for oil in the outer continental shelf,” he said.

Nowhere is the energy issue more sensitive than in the Gulf of Mexico, where environmentalists butt heads with economic development officials after one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The strange thing is, experts say, that despite the politics, Romney and Obama have essentially the same position on offshore drilling.

“They’re not that far apart,” said Cindy Rugeley, an assistant professor of politics at Texas Tech University. “Both of them agree that there should be some degree of drilling offshore.”

Promoting drilling is a little tougher for Obama, who counts environmentalists among his supporters and must tread carefully in Florida, which saw its tourism industry decimated after the oil spill. But administration officials have been vocal in insisting that there’s more offshore drilling going on than there has been in years, part of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that promotes getting energy from both below-the-ground resources and renewable fuels.

“Since the president took office, domestic oil and gas production has increased each year, with oil production higher than any time in eight years and natural gas production at its highest level ever,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. The administration has approved more than 500 permits for oil wells, and will hold a 38 million acre lease sale in June, he said.

By the end of April, there were 41 rigs operating offshore in Louisiana, compared to 47 in the week before the spill, according to a count by Baker Hughes, a large oil field company that keeps an official tally. Total federal oil production — offshore and on — has increased by 13% during the first three years of the Obama administration, according to administration data.

In October, the Interior Department completed reorganization of the Minerals Management Service, which had been responsible for regulating drilling, into three separate agencies. Permitting has picked up since then, with 32 drilling permits approved in the Gulf of Mexico in February, the most in one month since May 2007.

The administration points out that in one lease sale in December, it made available 21 million acres of land in the gulf, but the industry leased just 1 million acres.

Critics say the Obama administration has created regulatory uncertainty that’s driven out companies and workers.

“We are really not maximizing the opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Lori LeBlanc, executive director of the Gulf Economic Survival Team, a Louisiana nonprofit that advocates for more gulf energy production. “Without a predictable process, companies are going to look at other parts of the world.”

Operators submit plans to the government before they can apply for permits, she said, a process that used to take 50 days but now takes, on average, 212.

Obama’s opponents cite statistics that contradict administration figures. LeBlanc’s rig count shows 18 active rigs in the gulf now, down from 27 before the BP spill — any tallies that show otherwise are counting rigs that are not actively operating, she said. She is counting only deep-water rigs; the Baker Hughes number counts all offshore.

“There have been intentional efforts to slow down new production by slowing the permit approval process,” said Garret Graves, director of coastal activities for the state of Louisiana in the administration of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Graves said production was down about 100 million to 200 million barrels a year.

Those in Lafayette are divided over Obama’s record.

“We find there’s a lot of rhetoric coming from the politicians – they say they’re going to lift the moratorium, and then they don’t issue permits,” said Keith Mosing, chief executive of Frank’s International, which provides tools and workers for offshore rigs. He says 80% of the equipment he makes in Lafayette is going overseas.

But Volker Rathmann, president of Collarini Energy Staffing, which finds workers for offshore rigs, said the demand for such workers had tripled in the last year and a half.

“If you take the rhetoric and politics out of it, I don’t think the Obama administration is very far away from what the Republicans are saying,” he said. “If you can spell drilling, you can get a job.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Colorado contributed to this report.