By Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times
In addition to the fishermen and hoteliers whose livelihoods have been devastated by BP’s hemorrhaging undersea oil well, another group of Gulf Coast residents is beginning to suffer: the tens of thousands of workers like Ronald Brown who run the equipment or serve in support roles on deepwater oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Brown, known as Rusty to his friends, is a “shakerhand.” In the rugged vernacular of offshore drilling, that means he monitors the mud flowing back from the drill hole thousands of feet below.
He works aboard the Ocean Monarch, which was idled along with 32 other oil rigs when the Obama administration ordered a six-month moratorium on all deepwater drilling after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The rig’s owner is now seeking customers in other parts of the world. If the rig moves, Mr. Brown and his fellow motormen, roughnecks and roustabouts will be left behind, jobless, with few alternatives that would pay anything close to the $3,500 to $4,000 a month typical for such jobs.
On Wednesday, President Obama and BP announced that the company had voluntarily agreed to create a $100 million fund to compensate such rig workers. That’s a modest sum, critics say, given the potential economic losses. Each rig job supports roughly four additional jobs for cooks, supply-ship operators and others servicing the industry. Together, they represent total monthly wages of at least $165 million, according to estimates by a Louisiana oil industry group.
Still, Mr. Brown is grateful for any assistance. “Every little bit is going to help until we figure out where else to go,” he said. “But I’m not looking forward to unemployment, and I don’t know how quickly we’ll be able to get some of it.”
In an address to the nation Tuesday night, Mr. Obama apologized for the effect on oil workers who had nothing to do with the BP accident. “I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs,” he said. “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.”
The full economic impact of the drilling moratorium is still unclear, since many of the layoffs are just beginning and no one knows how long the ban will last.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association has warned that many of the affected rigs will seek to drill in other countries, imperiling roughly 800 to 1,400 jobs per rig, including third-party support personnel.
The securities firm Raymond James & Associates predicts that the moratorium could last well into 2011, directly jeopardizing 50,000 jobs and potentially gutting blue-collar communities that rely heavily on the economic activity that comes with deepwater work. “Just as the demise of auto plants and steel mills in the Upper Midwest devastated entire towns, an extended drilling ban could eventually have a similar effect in the Gulf Coast,” the company said in a report Monday.
Lawrence R. Dickerson, the chief executive of Diamond Offshore Drilling, which owns the Ocean Monarch and five other deepwater rigs in the gulf, was less pessimistic, suggesting that 15,000 to 20,000 rig and associated service jobs were at risk. He predicted that some deepwater rigs would remain in the area awaiting a resumption of drilling, but that all would be forced to cut staff as the moratorium continued.
Three Diamond rigs are already prospecting for jobs in the Mediterranean and West Africa. Should they leave, they would take less than half of their crew with them, Mr. Dickerson said.
The halt in drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet came in response to the still-unchecked gusher of oil that followed the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers. The goal was to give the government time to review the rules and oversight of such wells, and the shutdown was welcomed by many Americans who have watched the environmental disaster unfold.
But like fishing and tourism, deepwater drilling is also crucial to the Gulf economy.
At a Congressional hearing last week, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, confronted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with a list of local companies that serviced and depended on offshore energy development. She said that a temporary drill ban, even if it only lasted a few months, could affect as many as 330,000 people in Louisiana alone. That would “potentially wreak economic havoc on this region that exceeds the havoc wreaked by the spill itself,” she said.
Until two weeks ago, the Ocean Monarch — a mammoth, $300 million semi-submersible not unlike the Deepwater Horizon owned by Transocean — was poised to drill a well in 4,000 feet of water at a spot more than 100 miles offshore. About 115 workers from a variety of companies were onboard.
After the moratorium, Cobalt International Energy, the company that had hired the Monarch and spent $60 million preparing to drill the well, said it was looking to dissolve the contract.
Those negotiations continue, but when two New York Times reporters visited the rig last week, it was squatting in just 50 feet of water 27 miles off the coast of Louisiana. On the deck, 75-foot segments of riser pipe were stacked in tidy rows two stories high, and the rig’s manifest listed just 77 crew members aboard.
At a meeting with the crew, Mr. Dickerson talked about the uncertain future. “You know, if we can’t go back to work for a minimum six months or longer, it’s awfully hard to leave rigs sitting here,” he said.
Once a rig moves, it tends to stay put, fulfilling multiyear contracts. Lower-level jobs are normally filled using the host country’s work force.
After the meeting with Mr. Dickerson, a handful of rig workers — burly men in oil-stained T-shirts and overalls — shared their gnawing fear that the jobs that paid their modest mortgages, doctor bills and children’s tuitions were about to disappear.
Louis Alvarez, a motorman and 21-year veteran with Diamond Offshore, said that a layoff could hinder plans that he and his wife had made to send their son to college in the fall. “It’s a shame that I have to tell my 18-year-old son that he might have to help his daddy buy groceries,” he said.
Mr. Brown, the shakerhand, began to cry when he said that his wife, Athena, was now looking for a job.
A broad-shouldered, broad-faced man, Mr. Brown, 29, is paid roughly $22 an hour to work the rig’s standard two-week-on, two-week-off cycle, supplemented by occasional overtime. That’s enough to support Athena and their three children: 5-year-old Shiloh, 3-year-old Maelah, and 1-year-old Bennett, who wears a brace to help correct club feet.
The job prospects around their home in Magee, Miss., a dilapidated town of about 4,000, are few. Tyson Foods and Polk’s Meat Products have plants in the area, but would be unlikely to match a rig worker’s paycheck.
In an interview at their home, Mrs. Brown said that someday, the country might find a low-cost alternative to oil.
“But we don’t have an option right now,” she said. “For us to stop drilling in the gulf is like ending our lives as far as the way we live. It’s really that scary.”