CHARLIE MITHCELL: Jobs impact of oil spill not as visible, just as real

Oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has had the world’s attention since April 20.
But how many of us watching the flow while being schooled on the technology of drilling realize there are another 4,515 shallow-water wells and 591 deepwater wells in the gulf? Designs vary, but all are similar in purpose to the Transocean platform operated for BP that exploded due to an as-yet-unexplained cause.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association reports there are 33 floating rigs similar to the Deepwater Horizon, built in South Korea. Their operations have been suspended, perhaps as a political stunt and perhaps for legitimate reasons. No new permits are being issued for any rig.
The situation mirrors commercial air travel.
Every day 25,000 planes take off from hundreds of American airports. For years, each one of the 25,000 can make it safely to a destination. But when only one doesn’t, the results are tragic. We’re all given pause to think about the safety of air travel. Hearings are held. New directives are issued. Then it’s back to business as usual – seeking perfection, but never quite getting there.
Circle of blame
After the first call to the U.S. Coast Guard station in New Orleans reporting a fireball roaring from Deepwater Horizon, a circle of blame formed. The president is in it, as are assorted federal oversight personnel and executives of every company associated with the rig since it was commissioned into service nine years ago. Each pointed the finger at the next guy while the truth is that no one knows what happened.
Photos of the sheen on the ocean gave way to globules in nutrient-rich estuaries and then to oil caked on birds and sea creatures.
Less photogenic but facing the same ruin is a major, major slice of Mississippi’s already sputtering economy.
For the 33 idled rigs alone, the effect is lost wages for as many as 9,000 workers. Other spending in the stream of operational commerce brings the total shutdown cost to $1 million per rig per day.
There were 126 people on the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded. Eleven perished.
To follow the logic of some – that all offshore wells should be capped now that we know the extent of the peril – would eliminate an estimated 500,000 jobs. In Mississippi, since the early days of drilling in the Gulf, those jobs have been considered good jobs. Lots of people my age paid for their college educations by working offshore during summers. Three months’ wages could support them for a year.
Plugging the wells would also cut domestic oil production by a third. That means America would have to do without or import more. Higher prices either way. Plugging the wells would cut domestic natural gas production by 10 percent. That would mean much more expensive home heating and electric bills, given that so many power plants use natural gas as a fuel.
The impact on the seafood industry is broad. We live on a resilient planet. Witness the forests around Mount St. Helens that mask a tremendous volcanic eruption just over 30 years ago. Witness Prince William Sound, fouled by a tanker of spilled crude 11 years ago. Exxon paid $1 billion in damages and today there’s little sign a disaster occurred. Earth can heal.
Longer duration
The Gulf spill is different, perhaps due to the duration. It was 41 days from the explosion to the first oil washing onto Petit Bois Island, meaning even as the flow is reduced and the well is capped, the sea will remain fouled. Shrimp and many species of fish hatch annually in the brackish marshes that remain all along the coast, and if that process isn’t halted it will at least be seriously curtailed. It could take many years for populations to approach “normal” again and “normal” for Mississippi’s seafood industry is uncounted jobs and about $1.5 billion in the state economy. Eventually, however, “normal” will return.
For the time being, politicians will issue statements, Congress and courts will have hearings, executives will apologize and write checks. Before this thing is over, it may make Hurricane Katrina look like an afternoon breeze.
But we also know that our economy is intractably tied to fossil fuels. Until the last drop is found, we’ll keep drilling. We’ll all know – or should – that it can happen again.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail cmitchell@vicksburgpost.com.

Charlie Mitchell