Morgan City, Louisiana – Driving old Highway 90 paralleling the Gulf Coast under a vast, super-heated blue sky filled with cumulus it’s almost possible to forget the horror that continues to seethe beneath the nearby sea.
But the manmade scenery that lines the road – warehouse buildings, one after another, parking lots filled with pick-up trucks and SUVs — brings me right back to the connective tissue that links all of Louisiana: Oil.
Let’s be clear: There is really only one industry in Louisiana. Yes, fishing generates a couple billion dollars a year. And tourism, most of it focused around New Orleans and conventions, brings in more than $6 billion a year.
But all of that pales when stacked next to the $70 billion a year the oil business generates in the state and the 320,000 jobs it creates. A rigger with a high school education can, with overtime, make $100,000 a year. When workers come home from the rigs reeking of oil, they chide their buddies at the bar: “Smell that money!”
Morgan City is the headquarters of Louisiana’s oil industry; it was just offshore in 1947 that the nation’s first oil well was drilled. In the boom years that followed dozens of Cajun welders, tinkerers and mini-inventors got rich off patents devised for those very first reusable, movable drill rigs. One lasting result is the booming service and supply industry that dominates the frontage roads lining the highway.
These companies build, repair and deliver everything the industry needs, from 20-ton heat activators to sandwiches for the rigs, which have morphed into floating villages. There are household names like Halliburton and GE alongside international service companies like Baker Hughes, Delmar and Valeros and dozens of smaller outfits like Dolphin Energy Equipment, Oil Mop LLC and Diamond Offshore.
Scattered among the sprawling warehouses are churches and bars, discount cigarette stores, strip joints, mobile home sales, Po-boy restaurants, more churches and more strip clubs.
It used to be the industry was responsible for 40 percent of the state’s revenues; today it’s between 10 and 15 percent . The state’s governors, from Huey Long through Bobby Jindal, don’t even bother to pay lip service to being independent from the industry. They are joined at the hip, their elections funded by contributions from it, the state’s rules and regulations written and approved by it.
This is not just a Louisiana story though, it is an all-American one. The state provides 30 percent of the nation’s oil supply, to which the rest of us remain very, very thirsty – and addicted — consumers. So what goes on in Louisiana impacts us all.
Near Amelia, just west of Morgan City, we pull off the road to have a look at the monstrous J. Ray McDermott property which stretches for miles towards the Gulf. The company – which built the first all-concrete platform in the Gulf in 1950 and was the first to drill to 100 feet below in 1954 – today provides ships, derricks and barges for the oil industry around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Asian Pacific, the Middle East to the Caspian Sea.
It is a blinking LED billboard that attracts me: The company is looking for employees for deepwater jobs — ROV drivers, shipmates, riggers and more —
a reminder that while the gusher continues, so does the oil industry.