Published: Sunday, April 24, 2011 at 6:01 a.m. By Kathrine Schmidt Staff Writer
HOUMA — A safe ride should be close by if something goes wrong offshore.
That’s the goal of a bill introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, which would require that a “standby vessel” be within 12 miles, or a one-hour range, of manned offshore platforms or drilling rigs in the Gulf.
Even though there were life boats and life vests aboard the Deepwater Horizon, when the rig went up in flames some still had to make the “unimaginable” decision to jump overboard in hopes of saving their lives, Landry said.
Had it not been for a supply vessel that happened to be nearby and a fishing boat that helped rescue workers, the death toll could have been higher, he said.
“We could end up with fatalities for no reason,” said Landry, who announced the bill earlier this week and said it would be considered by the House Natural Resources Committee, of which he is a member. “I felt the industry could use a little nudge.”
The bill could mean a big economic benefit for the local offshore vessel industry.
That could translate into valuable support as Landry fights to keep his seat after the redistricting session carved up his 3rd Congressional district, forcing him to run against U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, in a district that favors Boustany.
A spokesman for Landry, Millard Mulé, rebuffed the suggestion that the bill intends to curry favor.
“Saving lives is not political at all,” he said. “That’s what this legislation is about.”
Landry said he intends the latest legislation, H.R. 1572, to be a “common-sense” solution improving worker safety, but is also willing to work with industry and be flexible on the specifics.
The fate of the bill is still uncertain: Landry doesn’t have any cosponsors yet, and Louisiana Sens. David Vitter and Mary Landrieu didn’t respond to requests this week about whether one of them would introduce a corresponding bill in the Senate.
“The most valuable resource in the Gulf of Mexico is not the oil and gas underneath the Gulf; it is the men and women who are willing to risk their lives to extract America’s energy,” Landry said in a release this week.
But some contend the bill as written would be impractical and redundant, given the thousands of manned platforms in the Gulf, high level of service traffic already present and response capacity from the Coast Guard.
“You can’t put a policeman at every corner,” said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. As for safety response, he said, “I think we have those practices in place.”
Others say Landry’s bill is a step in the right direction when it comes to planning for the worst, particularly if a platform is especially remote or inaccessible by air because of bad weather.
Jim Adams, CEO of the Offshore Marine Service Association, said the group has not taken an official position on the bill.
“One of the lessons learned from a year ago is that the industry, in a comprehensive fashion, needs to have better contingency planning for safety,” he said.
“There is a role for an identified vessel to provide emergency response. The particulars of what that capacity would be, and the proximity, needs to be developed in a collaborative matter.”
Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2011, 7:00 AM By Times-Picayune Staff
JOHN MCCUSKER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE A shrimp boat drags skimmers through the oil slick in the Gulf Of Mexico Thursday, May 6, 2010,That was the day when President Barack Obama imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which the state’s lawmakers said was, from an economic standpoint, “worse than the spill itself.”
“Within days of the disaster — when oil was still gushing into the Gulf — Barack Obama and his environmental extremist allies began using the tragedy to try to advance their anti-drilling agenda,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
BP was to blame for the spill and the rightful target of wrath and punishment, state officials said, but the rest of the industry and Louisianans who work for it should not be made to suffer.
In the context of Louisiana politics, it was an unsurprising stance, with the greatest tension in the delegation being who could be the most caustic and creative in their attacks on the moratorium.
“They’re probably reading their constituency pretty well,” said LSU political scientist Kirby Goidel, director of the Louisiana Survey, which in late June found that “people saw it as a BP problem; they didn’t see it as an oil and gas industry problem.”
Margaret Susan Thompson, an associate professor of history and political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, has studied the Gilded Age, the post-Civil War period when American industry was growing and lawmakers were grasping for subsidies for railroads that would benefit their communities.
“The question is, how do you draw the line? Is this going to benefit the people in my district or my state — or just a big campaign contributor?” Thompson said.
For Louisiana lawmakers the answer could be yes on both counts.
Vitter and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., have been among the biggest recipients of oil and gas money in their campaigns. Oil and gas interests also were among the top contributors to of Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, the freshman Republican who has assumed the mantle of the industry’s most aggressive advocate on the Hill.
But, Landry said, “the insinuation that we are in bed with the oil and gas industry is absurd. Right now, the people we are in bed with are middle-class Americans who are paying $5 a gallon for gas.”
Landry, like other members of the delegation, bristled at the conclusion of the Oil Spill Commission that the Deepwater Horizon disaster indicated a “systemic” problem with the industry. He doesn’t support giving regulators more money, even though they say they need it to process permits the industry — and its legislative backers — are clamoring for, and he certainly doesn’t support increasing fees on industry to pay for more regulation.
Landry said he is preparing his own legislation to ensure safer conditions for rig workers, a version of which, he said, was killed by the industry — particularly BP — a few years ago.
Devotion to oil industry
The problem in Louisiana, said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book on the history of the environmental movement, is that there is no countervailing political pressure in the state.
“I’m looking at all 50 states — and the most abused ecosystem is this ragged boot of Louisiana,” Brinkley said. But there has never been an effective environmental movement in Louisiana, he said, to call out the state’s political leadership when it toes industry’s line.
With the world watching the BP disaster, some observers wonder if the Louisiana delegation overplayed its hand.
“I was struck by it at the time, how much of their focus was on getting the drilling started again,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
Obviously, Ornstein said, there were reasons to worry about losing even more jobs in a perilous economy and after suffering the loss of jobs in fishing and tourism as a result of the spill. And there were concerns that the industry’s enemies in Congress and the environmental movement would seek to use the disaster to try to shut down drilling altogether.
But their single-minded fervor to resume drilling even amidst the “massive devastation” seemed off, said Ornstein, who said it called to mind the devotion of the Michigan delegation to the auto industry as it rode to ruin.
Don Boesch, a New Orleans native who served on the Oil Spill Commission, worries that devotion to the oil industry could come back to haunt the state when Congress weighs whether to direct 80 percent of the fines BP will have to pay for the spill to coastal restoration.
Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that the Louisiana narrative “that we should just say it’s BP’s fault and go back to an aggressive drilling situation without applying the lessons of the Macondo blowout is seen by many people in the rest of the country as quite inconsistent” with the demand for coastal restoration money, a commission recommendation that Boesch strongly backs.
Changing the state psyche
Boesch said he heard even sympathetic members of Congress muse aloud that “these people don’t take care of their environment like we do — why should we give them the money?”
Boesch believes a more tempered reaction from Louisiana’s leadership could have positioned the state as a locus for new jobs in regulation and safety that instead set up shop in Houston.
Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network shares Boesch’s analysis.
“Our cause is just,” said Viles of the play for the coastal restoration money, but the stance of the states’s political leadership is off-putting to many natural allies beyond its borders.
“Our leaders’ track record of doing everything possible to support and boost the oil industry — most of the world looks at that as totally inconsistent and crazy,” Viles said. “I know folks in Louisiana don’t see it as inconsistent but we need to have an acknowledgement of how we got where we are and we haven’t seen that from the political leadership.”
To Patty Whitney, a community activist and director of the Bayou History Center in Terrebonne Parish, this is all too facile.
“The rest of America has no concept of how badly Louisiana has been used by the rest of America for the last century, since oil drilling began,” said Whitney, who said that America demands the energy Louisiana produces while ignoring the destruction it leaves behind.
Whitney also believes that, bit by bit, in the wake of the spill, some Louisianans are rethinking their relationship with oil. But, she said, the nation also doesn’t appreciate how hard that is.
“The rest of America doesn’t understand how seriously enveloped the economic and political structure are in one industry,” she said. “They’re involved in every aspect of the state psyche.”
Or as Chris John, a former Democratic congressman who now heads the Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association, put it recently in presenting an award to ExxonMobil: “The history of Louisiana and ExxonMobil has been inextricably intertwined for more than 100 years and, quite frankly, it is hard to imagine one without the other.”
The thorny issue of raising oil spill liability limits rose at two congressional hearings Wednesday, with Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, predicting that higher caps would “destroy the shallow-water drilling industry,” and an economist who studied the issue for the Oil Spill Commission testifying that the lower limit encouraged the industry to “underinvest in safety.”Gulf of Mexico 112 miles south of Houma.
Helix Energy Solutions is part of an effort by 20 companies to have a system ready to deal with a crisis such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Oil Pollution Act caps liability for damages from an offshore spill at $75 million per incident, a limit that BP waived in the aftermath of its Deepwater Horizon disaster last year. It’s not yet clear how much the deep-pocketed oil giant will end up paying for the massive spill.
The National Oil Spill Commission recommended that Congress significantly raise the liability cap, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, who has authored legislation to implement many of the commission’s recommendations, goes even further in his bill, which would remove the cap altogether.
Otherwise, he said, the taxpayers are on the hook to make up the difference.
At a committee hearing on Republican bills to speed the pace of permitting and open new offshore areas to drilling, Markey pressed the liability issue in his questioning of Hank Danos, president of Danos and Curole Marine Contractors, an oilfield service company based in Larose, who had been called to testify about how the slowdown in drilling had led him to lay off 200 workers.
“Do you believe that a $75 million penalty for the kind of spill we saw is high enough, or should it be higher?” asked Markey, demanding an answer as Danos struggled to say that anything that increased costs wasn’t helpful.
When it came his turn to ask questions, Landry revisited the liability issue with Danos.
“Mr. Danos, you do a lot of work for shallow-water drilling contractors. Could you tell me if they remove the liability cap on the (Outer Continental) Shelf, the impact for those oil and gas contractors?” asked Landry, noting that most of those shallow-water companies are relatively small.
“My understanding is that if the liability cap was removed, that there would be more wells shut in and shut down, and less production in the Gulf of Mexico,” Danos said.
“So it would destroy the shallow water drilling industry,” Landry said. “Is that what it would do?”
“It could,” Danos said.
But at an afternoon hearing of the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, Molly Macauley, research director for Resources for the Future, an independent research center, suggested that “limited liability and sometimes-ineffective regulatory oversight can lead people to naturally under invest in safety.”
Macauley studied that issue as part of her research for the Spill Commission into the industry’s development, or lack of development, of spill containment technology.
In the aftermath of the disaster, two groups — the Helix Well Containment Group and the Marine Well Containment Co. — have just completed development of new deepwater containment response systems that could respond in the event of loss of well control, and that have enabled the federal government to begin approving permits for new deepwater drilling.
Owen Kratz, president and CEO of Helix Energy Solutions Group, who also testified before the Science subcommittee, said he doesn’t agree with Macauley’s conclusion that the liability cap worked to discourage investment in the kind of expensive system his group had created.
He said the oil industry’s self-interest in avoiding a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon is so deep and plain, that “these companies don’t even think about the liability cap in keeping a spill from happening.”
On the contrary, Kratz said, “I can definitely see a high cap being a disincentive to innovation,” by simply driving business out of the Gulf of Mexico.
( Original Article )