STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar travels to Houma, Louisiana today. He'll be meeting with oil industry executives who are not especially happy. Even though the Obama administration has lifted its moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the government has been slow to issue drilling permits. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: It's not the big oil companies hurting now. The Gulf of Mexico is just one sliver of their worldwide portfolios. It's the smaller companies who rely more heavily on the Gulf. Among them is Hercules Offshore.
About 25 miles from the Texas coast is the Hercules 205 shallow-water drilling rig. Getting there requires an hour-long boat ride with a friendly skipper who likes his Christmas music.
(Soundbite of song, "Silver Bells")
Unidentified Man: I have to turn it down...
BRADY: On the huge rig, which is standing in about 100 feet of water, there's no drilling because there are no permits from regulators. Workers are performing maintenance, spraying away rust and old paint. Down below, welders are repairing some steel plating and work will begin soon to replace showers in the bathroom. In the galley for lunch is assistant driller Bobby Waguspack, who says this is an uncertain time.
Mr. BOBBY WAGUSPACK (Assistant driller): Well, if you don't know you're going to have a job the next week, it affects your mind, you know?
BRADY: These crews typically work and live on the rig for a few weeks, then have a few weeks off. Waguspack says even his home time has become stressful.
Mr. WAGUSPACK: You don't know if you're going to get a call saying, well, you know, we might have to bump you down as a roustabout or roughneck or something. And that would affect your pay.
BRADY: Or even worse, he could get laid off. Hercules Offshore has lost more than half of its stock market value since BP's Deepwater Horizon accident last April. Jim Noe is a senior vice president, and he heads a coalition of shallow-water drillers.
Mr. JIM NOE (Senior Vice President, Hercules Offshore): The wells that we're drilling aren't the BP-Macondo wells. They're natural gas wells, not oil wells. And we're using technology that we've been using for decades, safely and without incident.
BRADY: It looked like the Obama administration recognized this, too, at first. The shallow-water moratorium lasted less than a month.
Mr. NOE: And yet, we've been facing what we've called a de-facto moratorium because the Obama bureaucrats won't issue permits.
BRADY: Noe says historically the government approved 10 to 15 shallow water drilling permits a month. But now, that number has fallen to almost none.
Ms. JACKIE SAVITZ (Senior campaign director, Oceana): We don't think it's slow enough, actually. We think they should come to a complete stop with permitting offshore drilling.
BRADY: Jackie Savitz is a senior campaign director with the environmental group Oceana. She says it's clear why regulators are moving so slowly.
Ms. SAVITZ: You know, we can't afford to cut corners. We can't afford to go easy on safety requirements. Otherwise we end up losing lives and, you know, creating uncontrollable disasters in our oceans.
BRADY: But what Savitz sees as taking extra care to protect people and ecosystems, others see as outright hostility from the Obama Administration. Randy Stilley is CEO of Seahawk Drilling.
Mr. RANDY STILLEY (CEO, Seahawk Drilling): Everything they've done since this incident indicates to me that they don't like the oil and gas industry and this was a good excuse to punish it.
BRADY: Last week, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu agreed to lift her hold on one of President Obama's nominees. In return, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is headed to the Gulf today to get an earful from industry executives.
Mr. STILLEY: Knowing Senator Landrieu like I do, I'm sure she believes that she has a commitment. Now let's see if we actually have one and we see some results.
BRADY: We're headed back to shore now. You can see the drilling rig off in the distance, getting smaller behind us. Over on the left there are three Seahawk drilling rigs clustered very close together. That's unusual to see out here. Essentially they're moth-balled. They're waiting for drilling activity to pick back up in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, aboard the Carissa Shane transport boat. �