Drilling moratorium may be more costly than oil spill

By Don Stowers
Economic researchers in Louisiana and Texas have been busy calculating the damage to the states’ economies caused by the Obama administration’s moratorium on deepwater drilling. It turns out that the economic impact to businesses and workers in both states may be more severe than the cost of the cleanup in the aftermath of the April 20 explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the subsequent gusher of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A small portion of that oil washed ashore on Louisiana beaches and marshes, and the spill shut down the fishing industry near the affected areas.

As costly as that has been (estimates range upward to several billion dollars), the long-term loss of jobs of offshore oil industry workers and the loss of business for related companies may be even worse, says a report by the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research.

More than 8,000 jobs and about $500 million in wages will be lost if the moratorium continues longer than six months, according to the report titled “The Economic Cost of a Moratorium on Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration to the Gulf Region.” This will result in a total economic loss of about $2.1 billion to the area.

Joseph Mason, a professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says that economic losses in Texas will be about $622 million, about half that of Louisiana. However, he says the data suggests that, “The moratorium could be more costly than the oil spill itself.”

There is no doubt that the oil spill will lead to tougher regulations on Gulf of Mexico drilling, and this may drive some drilling contractors and operators to other countries where the rules governing drilling aren’t as onerous to the petroleum industry. So the long-term loss of jobs and tax revenue from operators, industry vendors, and employees may be very detrimental to the economies in Louisiana and Texas.

One industry veteran told me recently, “We have come back from Katrina, from Gustav, from Ike, and from other natural disasters. However, I don’t know if the industry will ever recover if the government chases off [operators]. The oil and gas industry is the basis for our livelihood, and I don’t know what can take its place.”

The major Gulf of Mexico players like BP, Shell, Chevron, and others are large diversified corporations with worldwide operations. They will survive whatever the government throws at them. However, many of the independent operators that are focused almost exclusively on the Gulf may not. Neither will some of the family-owned and smaller suppliers to the offshore industry.

This is not obtuse economic theory. To those of us who live along the Gulf Coast, it is tangible and easy to understand. If the White House truly wants to turn the economy around and stop the loss of jobs, it must consider lifting the drilling moratorium immediately.