HOUMA, La. — Along the troubled waters of the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman has become a bit of a folk hero.
He's the Ronald Reagan appointee who last week overturned the Obama administration's six-month ban on deepwater oil exploration, siding with oil service companies and the state of Louisiana, which argued that the moratorium — coming on the heels of the gusher in the Gulf — would seriously weaken the state's economy.
"The court is persuaded that it is only a matter of time before more business and jobs and livelihoods will be lost,'' Feldman wrote. "An invalid agency decision . . . simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the 1/8companies3/8, the local economy, the Gulf region.''
Jeanette Tanguis, 45, the wife of an oil rigger, couldn't agree more.''
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"This moratorium is an attack on our livelihood,'' said Tanguis, who says she's so worried about the future that she can't sleep at night, anxious that the next paycheck will be the last for her husband, Ken.
"People are talking about us only as 'economic impacts,' '' Tanguis said. "I'm tired of being called an economic impact. We are families. We need the work.''
The oil industry employs 32,000 people in Louisiana's coastal parishes and pumps an estimated $3 billion into the state economy. In cities like Houma in Terrebonne Parish, more than 60 percent of the jobs are oil-related.
Louisiana State University's Center for Energy Studies — which Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal cited in his state's filing to overturn the ban — estimates a six-month stop could cost the state more than 10,000 jobs, from idled oil rig workers to no-longer needed crews that clean the vessels and feed the workers.
Workers like Robert Bushnell, a 50-year-old security supervisor who counts on the industry for a living. "Fewer clients mean fewer jobs and we could go out of business,'' Bushnell said. "It's simple.''
Environmentalists argue the speculation over the loss of jobs is outweighed by the risks of another catastrophe in the Gulf.
"To rush into drilling activities that have been shown to be loosely monitored at best would only expose the Gulf to unnecessary peril,'' said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Environmentalists assailed Feldman's decision, noting he owned or has owned shares in several oil and gas firms, including up to $15,000 in Transocean, the owner of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig at the BP well that is pouring oil into the Gulf.
The moratorium affects 33 deepwater exploratory rigs — not the essentially unmanned platforms across the Gulf of Mexico that are producing oil. The center estimates the hit from idled rigs could be as much as $1.5 billion, though it's unknown how many of the rigs had actually stopped working; the moratorium required them to stop when it was safe to do so.
At an anti-moratorium rally Thursday, Tanguis looked around to the men in hard-hats behind her and asked, "Do you know anyone who's lost their job?" All said no.
David Dismukes, associate director of the center, said it'll happen, however, particularly if the Obama administration succeeds in blocking Feldman's ruling on appeal.
"It's not happened yet, but when it does, it's going to be a cascade,'' he said. "It's going to be hard not to feel it.''
The response effort to the spill in the Gulf is creating jobs of its own — including captains and vessels hired to patrol for oil slicks.
But Dismukes said there's concern that the six-month moratorium would be extended, prompting the pricey deepwater rigs to foreign oil fields, not to return to the Gulf for years.
Samuel Giberga, senior vice president and general counsel for Hornbeck Offshore Services, the Covington, La., company that filed suit against the moratorium, said he's convinced the coveted rigs will move overseas. His company could move its vessels that serve the industry — but few of its 1,300 employees, as it would have to staff rigs in foreign countries with non-U.S. mariners.
"It's the human part that's the loss for us,'' he said.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu wiped away tears as she pleaded on the Senate floor last week for a compromise. Her office has readied an information sheet about the moratorium, contending that each drilling rig job supports four other jobs.
"There is more oil than there are rigs able to drill,'' Landrieu said. "They cannot and will not sit idly in the Gulf of Mexico while we sit and decide what to do. They will leave and not come back.''
President Obama, in an address from the Oval Office, acknowledged the strain, but defended the moratorium.
"I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue,'' Obama said.
The administration pressed BP to set up a $100 million fund for idled rig workers but BP's new cleanup chief, Bob Dudley, acknowledged the cost of the moratorium could be higher.
It seems unlikely, however, that BP will replenish the fund, which Dudley called a "goodwill gesture.''
"It's debatable whether BP would be liable for that step taken to impose the moratorium, but we recognize it has been very difficult for the oil rig workers and it was meant in that spirit,'' Dudley said of the $100 million.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, too, defended the moratorium, saying he planned to "issue a new order in the coming days that eliminates any doubt that a moratorium is needed, appropriate, and within our authorities.''
Environmentalists who support the moratorium question the companies' "claims of speculative economic harm" and said that in any case they are "clearly outweighed by the ongoing environmental harm in the Gulf."
"It doesn't seem like much of a burden economically, in the big picture, when weighed against the giant amount economic activity in the Gulf,'' said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who filed as an intervenor in the case along with the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club.
Guest said the Environmental Protection Agency has pegged Gulf Coast tourism at $20 billion a year, and puts a $1 billion per year value on its marine life.
"If a 747 crashed you'd expect the government to ground the fleet for as long as you needed to protect lives,'' Guest said. ``I don't see how this is any different.''
Guest noted that in court records Hornbeck told investors in a conference call that several of its vessels were involved in oil spill relief efforts.
But said, Giberga, "That's not an industry . . . If we have to move we're going to have to start letting people go.''
(Clark reported from Washington; Samuels, of the Miami Herald, from Houma.)
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