Reporting from Lafayette, La. — The federal moratorium on exploratory drilling for oil in deep-sea waters is tantamount to an attack on Louisiana's way of life, politicians and business leaders said Wednesday at an oil-industry-sponsored rally here.
The political event at the nearly packed Cajundome stadium demonstrated the influence of the oil industry over Louisiana, and the belief that the moratorium could be so hurtful to the state's economy that drilling is worth the risk.
"I think the risk to the local economy is greater than the risk to the environment right now," said machinist Andy Fuquay, 27, dressed in dark blue coveralls.
Standing next to him in the Cajundome was Ian Anderson, 30, a commercial diver who has lost steady work since April. Anderson installs equipment on oil rigs and other structures, but the oil spill has forced new costly safety measures to protect divers from the toxic water, which have made companies reluctant to hire them.
"Rigs are safe. They have so many fail-safes on those rigs. It's ridiculous," Anderson said. "I think it was pretty much a one-time fluke.…These kinds of disasters are not very common."
Speakers at the rally in this city of 110,000 in the heart of Cajun country acknowledged that it may be hard for outsiders to understand their position. But in a state where the livelihood of one out of four people is tied to the oil industry, many are genuinely worried about the moratorium's effect on their financial security.
"People are going to lose their jobs," said John Courville, 45, who works in Lafayette at CLM Equipment, which sells heavy construction equipment. "I mean, I understand the wildlife part of it, and I think it's somewhat going to be damaged, but I don't think it's worth the jobs that we're going to have lost.…This is going to be a bigger loss."
A two hours' drive to the east, in suburban New Orleans, federal hearings this week have made it clear that many safety shortcuts were taken aboard the Deepwater Horizon, which suffered mechanical problems that went unreported to federal authorities before it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and unleashing a geyser of oil that spewed up to 60,000 barrels a day for nearly three months into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rally for Economic Survival was organized by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Assn., the lobbying arm of the industry. It attracted support from many companies that believe they have a stake in the moratorium — bankers, waste companies, accountants, chambers of commerce, and a radio and TV station.
The event was ready-made political theater for the likes of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the energetic young Republican who has seen his popularity rise after the spill. Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle was master of ceremonies, leading a cheer of "Lift the ban!" Even the entertainer, country music singer Sammy Kershaw, has political aspirations: He is running for lieutenant governor.
Some restaurants and workplaces shut down and employers encouraged their workers to attend the lunchtime event in hopes of packing the Cajundome, which seats up to 13,000. The first 3,000 attendees were promised free T-shirts.
"We desperately need the media to share the truth with the rest of the country," said Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel. "The greatest risk to our economy is the moratorium.…Our greatest obstacle to our recovery is man-made."
Jindal, wearing khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt, has been walking the line between saying the oil must be cleaned up without shutting down the industry.
When asked at a news conference if he was choosing the oil industry over the fishermen, Jindal said, "Look — every single person out there wants drilling to be done safely. Louisiana…should not have to choose between our coast and safe energy protection."
"We don't want another drop of oil in the gulf," Jindal said. "What we're saying to the federal government is, 'Do your jobs so thousands of Louisianans don't lose our jobs.'"
For instance, Jindal said, federal officials could increase oversight on rigs without the suspension of drilling on several dozen deep-sea oil rigs.
Sweltering in the humid heat on the edge of the air-conditioned Cajundome were a dozen local residents waving signs reading, "We support wildlife and fisheries."
"The president put this moratorium in place for safety reasons," said Porsha Evans, 55, a radio talk-show host. "I have several family members who work on oil rigs in the gulf, who know the shortcuts that these oil companies take when it comes to safety. So I believe that some type of moratorium should be in place until we find out if all these rigs are safe."
Retiree Wallace Senegal, 63, said he supports the resumption of drilling — but only when it can be done safely.
"Let's quit blaming President Obama for this oil spill and the moratorium," Senegal said. "He's looking out for our safety. He's looking out for the fish and wildlife industry. He's looking out for the oil and gas industry so they don't have any more disasters on these rigs."
"If they make it safe, make these rigs safe to drill, I say, 'Drill baby drill.'" Senegal said. "But if they don't, keep the moratorium on until they do."