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Louisiana Gulf Coast Businesses Lament Losses

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Pelicans fly past oil platforms off the coast of Port Fourchon, La.

Helicopters that used to take thousands of employees out to drilling rigs like these off the coast of Port Fourchon, La., each month are now silent. Patrick Semansky/AP hide caption

toggle caption Patrick Semansky/AP

The deep-water drilling moratorium has been lifted, but oil industry experts and many businesses that depend on the industry say the effects are not over. In fact, they suggest the region has not yet seen the full impact of the drilling ban.

A recent federal government report played down the damage, saying the moratorium had created only a temporary loss of some 8,000 to 12,000 jobs. Many in Louisiana say that's just not true.

"We might have had 3 percent or 4 percent unemployment, but now it's creeping up," says Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute in New Orleans.

This region has been sheltered from high unemployment that much of the country has seen, and that's largely because of the success of the oil and gas industry. But Smith says the region has lost at least 10,000 jobs directly due to the moratorium, and thousands of others indirectly. And he says some of the jobs created are not the same kind of stable, high-paying jobs that have been lost.

"So if I lay off 500 drilling workers, and I hire 500 people that I pay $12 an hour to sweep up the beach, that's a net loss for Louisiana," Smith says.

Chett Chiasson, director of Port Fourchon

Chett Chiasson is the director of Port Fourchon, about 100 miles south of New Orleans. He says companies have moved out much of their equipment from the port. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR

Port Fourchon

About 100 miles south of New Orleans, Port Fourchon is a key support center for the oil and gas industry. But it's a lot quieter these days. Helicopters that used to take thousands of employees out to drilling rigs each month are now silent.

"You see this parking lot that could probably handle about 350 cars or so? You might see 35 to 40 cars in this parking lot," says Chett Chiasson, the port's director. "Before April 20th, this parking lot was full."

Chiasson says companies have moved out much of their equipment. Rigs are no longer being serviced, and the port cut its rental rates by 30 percent to try to keep business here.

"What many companies have had to do is cut hours, cut overtime, cut salaries, freeze salaries. They've had to look at themselves and say, 'Well, we can't spend money on that, we can't expand, we can't do this maintenance work,' " Chiasson says.

Smaller businesses that support the oil industry have also had a hard time since spring, when the BP well exploded. Rig-Chem in Houma, La., employs 17 people. It provides chemicals to deep-water drillers when they are finishing off their new wells.

"When there are no rigs operating, there's nothing for us to do," says Rig-Chem co-owner Lori Davis. Davis says the company has been through hurricanes that have temporarily shut down the business, but she's never seen a more difficult time than this. And for the first time ever, she's had to apply for a line of credit.

"Getting money from banks, it's very hard right now. And then, when you don't have the receivables to pledge to get a line of credit, banks don't want to take the risk," Davis says.

Trickle Down

Davis got the line of credit, but she still doesn't know when she'll see business pick up. If things don't improve by December, Davis says she'll have to cut jobs.

Over in Golden Meadow, La., Rose's Cafe is not as packed as usual. Billy Joe Bruner, a contract welder, is one of the regulars here who is lamenting his situation.

"If the oil field is not spending money, then it doesn't trickle down to us," Bruner says.

People who live in this area are angry at BP because of the oil spill — but they're just as angry at the federal government for having banned deep-water drilling. Bruner says it was the government that created economic uncertainty that didn't exist before, and he remains pessimistic.

"Down here in Lafourche Parish, I want to say we were in the top 10 in the nation as far as having the lowest unemployment. You know, if you can't find a job down here, you don't want to work," Bruner says. "But we're gonna be 10 percent, 15 percent unemployment down here because of a moratorium because of one company's mistake."

Even with the drilling ban lifted, business people along the Gulf say it could take months or even years for them to recover.

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