Families Feel Effects Of Federal Debate On Drilling

Oil workers listen to Governor Bobby Jindal speak out against the drilling moratorium in June i i

Oil workers listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during a speech in June in Houma, La. Jindal spoke out against the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, saying it would kill thousands of Louisiana jobs. Gregory Bull/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Bull/AP
Oil workers listen to Governor Bobby Jindal speak out against the drilling moratorium in June

Oil workers listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during a speech in June in Houma, La. Jindal spoke out against the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, saying it would kill thousands of Louisiana jobs.

Gregory Bull/AP

The Obama administration was in a New Orleans federal court Wednesday, defending the government's moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, imposed in the wake of the BP spill.

While the legal battle over the six-month ban is waged in court, it has fostered a political debate over what it means for the oil and gas industry. And workers fear the moratorium will force their jobs overseas.

'Big Feeling Of Uncertainty'

Deep in South Louisiana, about as far south as you can drive down Highway 1, is the equivalent of a small industrial city embedded in the marshes of Bayou Lafourche.

This is Port Fourchon, the epicenter of drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Every day, equipment, supplies and offshore workers come and go from this sea and airport.

A Chevron helicopter lands, and a handful of workers tumble out with their bags and head for the highway back home.

The moratorium is a touchy subject around here. Most workers are reluctant to talk publicly. Some say their companies have asked them not to speak with reporters.

So far two drilling rigs have moved out of the Gulf, but 30 others are now idle.

"There's just this big, big feeling of uncertainty," says Heather Swann, captain of a boat out of Port Fourchon.

Her boat takes groceries, equipment and supplies like drilling mud and cement out to rigs in the Gulf.

"The offshore oil fleet, there was always a little bit of security to that. The U.S. needs oil, there's domestic oil, there's going to be rigs and drilling and production, and you're going to have a job for a long time. But right now we've been getting a lot of questions from our company about who's got passports, where are you in your licensing?" Swann says. She thinks those questions mean some jobs are likely to move overseas.

Jeanette Tanguis of Houma, La., holds a poster supporting deep-water drilling. i i

Jeanette Tanguis, of Houma, La., holds a poster she created for a rally against the deep-water drilling moratorium in June. Her husband was offshore working on a rig at the time, and e-mailed to say she and her son should go. Thomas Pierce/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Pierce/NPR
Jeanette Tanguis of Houma, La., holds a poster supporting deep-water drilling.

Jeanette Tanguis, of Houma, La., holds a poster she created for a rally against the deep-water drilling moratorium in June. Her husband was offshore working on a rig at the time, and e-mailed to say she and her son should go.

Thomas Pierce/NPR

The uncertainty has rippled through the oil services industry, and puts some workers in a difficult position as they consider what the moratorium can achieve.

Lavonne Martin of Baton Rouge works for a company that provides offshore medical care.

"As an environmentalist, as a fisherman, as someone who loves our Louisiana coast, I understand it. ... However, as somebody who, you know, makes a living working in the oil industry, I'm very concerned about it and what the future ... economic impact may be," Martin says.

At The Kitchen Table

The mass layoffs that some predicted haven't materialized yet, but that hasn't eased the tension in the homes of rig workers.

Every afternoon, a little before 4 p.m., Jeanette Tanguis sits down at her kitchen table in Houma, La., to have an online chat with her husband, who is off in the Gulf.

"He's slow, he just woke up. He's usually sitting there with his coffee and one eye open," she says.

Ken Tanguis is getting ready to work the night shift as a mechanic on an idled ultradeep-water rig.

"You could probably eat off the floors of the drill floor right now because they've all been just doing: keep busy, keep it clean, work, because they're not drilling. It's frustrating for them because they want to be working and they're not," Jeanette Tanguis says.

It's also hard on an oil field wife. Jeanette Tanguis says she and her husband have put off looking for a new house and are anxiously awaiting news about the contract for his rig. She says her friends and neighbors are doing the same.

"We're not ... just poor oil field trash. We're families that want to work. We don't want government assistance," she says.

Joey Smith owns a company that makes hydraulic cranes and other heavy equipment used offshore. He says the whole industry is being punished for mistakes made on just one rig.

"Why not do it for everything then? If an aircraft went down, shut it down ... a coal mine, any sort of disaster like that. If it's a problem, shut 'em all down. ... That's kind of the feeling in the oil field of it. What's good for one is good for another."

Jeanette Tanguis says the Deepwater Horizon explosion did expose problems at the federal Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement), but the moratorium is too much. She says most rig workers pride themselves on safety because their lives are at stake — something she thinks about every day when she signs off with her husband.

"I always tell him ... I love him and have a good night, work safely," she says. "Thirty-three years, he hasn't gotten hurt yet."

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