An oil drilling platform stands offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as people fish in Port Fourchon, La., on April 21.
An oil drilling platform stands offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as people fish in Port Fourchon, La., on April 21. Patrick Semansky/AP
The mammoth oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, sparked by the explosion and sinking of a deep-water oil rig, now surrounds the Mississippi River Delta, all but shutting down fisheries. But the oil industry still has a lot of friends on the delta. As Louisianans fight the crude invading their coast, many also want to repel efforts to limit offshore drilling.
"We need the oil industry, and down here, there are only two industries — fishing and oil," says charter boat captain Devlin Roussel.
Fish take shelter from a current amid the metal supports of an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas in May 2005. Sea life is attracted to the underwater structure of the oil platforms — which makes the platforms a destination for Gulf Coast fishing charters.
Fish take shelter from a current amid the metal supports of an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas in May 2005. Sea life is attracted to the underwater structure of the oil platforms — which makes the platforms a destination for Gulf Coast fishing charters. LM Otero/AP
Like most charter captains on the delta, Roussel has just been sitting on the dock lately. But if he did have paying customers to take out fishing, he'd most likely take them to an oil rig.
"The best fishing in the world is off the mouth of the Mississippi River, because of the oil rigs," Roussel says. "They're the greatest artificial reefs in the world."
The rigs support fish, and the oil industry's high wages support many of the customers out trying to catch them. A day on Roussel's boat starts at $1,300.
Oil generates $30 billion a year in Louisiana — 16 times more than fishing, says Eric Smith, a professor at Tulane University's Energy Institute. "It dwarfs everything, in terms of impact on the economy," he says.
Large choppers pound the air over the delta all day every day, lugging oil workers to and from some 4,000 offshore wells and drilling rigs. Towering, smoking oil refineries punctuate the flat green landscape.
Roughly one-third of the oil produced in the continental U.S. flows through Louisiana, and 70 percent of it is from deep-water wells — "which is why we're so upset about this moratorium," Smith says.
The Moratorium On Deep-Water Oil Drilling
President Obama has clamped a six-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling. He says a pause is necessary to guard against another crushing environmental catastrophe. But Peter Ricchiuti, who teaches finance at Tulane, says deep-water oil is crucial.
"The last great oil province in the domestic United States is the deep water in the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "I mean, you can make major gas finds, you can hit smaller oil fields, but what we call elephant fields — the last of them are in the Gulf of Mexico."
Like many people here, Ricchiuti is an avid sportsman. He has a "fish camp," basically a shack on stilts in a swamp near Pointe a la Hache, and he worries that oil spilled a mile below the surface will ruin the shallow marsh. But it's revenue from new deep-water wells that will fund marsh restoration projects, and, he says, to stop drilling would hobble Louisiana's economy.
"Oh yeah, it takes a big piece of the economic pie, and also a big piece of the future economic pie away from us in here," he says.
'A Good Relationship'
Down at Venice Marina, Rolland Hingle is cleaning his shrimp boat. He says that though the oil spill is wrecking his business, he's not inclined to ban drilling.
"Yeah, no — we need the oil to operate the boats. That's part of our industry," he says. "So get the safety part down, but don't stop drilling."
A little ways north on the delta at Empire, shrimp and oyster fisherman Kerry Despaux says his roots in the oil industry run deep.
"My dad was one of the first drillers in the 1950s around here," Despaux says. "He used to talk about those days all the time."
That kind of story is pretty common. Many families in the area have ties to both fishing and oil. But the thinking about that relationship between those two industries may be changing.
"We had a good relationship. I mean, I guess we still do. It's just ... it's unfortunate, what happened out there," Despaux says.
As sport fisherman Roussel says, delta residents are torn. There's nothing simple about the feelings they have about the big-money industry here — oil.