From the Shores of Louisiana — Protesting to lift the drilling ban

Lafayette, Louisiana — Last month’s Rally for the Economy in Lafayette, Louisiana, went largely unnoticed outside the state, though 11,000 vociferous oil workers, their supporters and the elected political elite of the state showed up and shouted to the rooftop about their concerns over the continuing moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.

The Cajundome next to the campus of Louisiana University was packed with those who see the greatest crime created yet by the BP mess is the federal moratorium which its opponents say has already cost thousands of jobs and taken tens of millions of dollars out of the local economy.

The overarching sentiment at the event, sponsored by the state’s gas and oil lobbying group, was that, yes, the environmental mess may be bad … but the economic hit to the oil industry caused by the moratorium is far worse. The first 3,000 attendees got free t-shirts, others wore their own emblazoned with oil company logos or slogans like “Drill Baby Drill” and “No Moratorium.”

Twin themes emerged as more than a dozen politicians took to the stage. “You’re playing politics with our livelihood!” and “The moratorium is an attack on a way of life!” were the rallying cries, messages that were rowdily applauded here in the heart of Lafayette Parish, where 40 percent of all jobs are tied to oil and gas.

A majority in the crowd — many angry and frightened about the future, many of them unemployed — blame President Obama. Whenever the President’s name came up, it was followed by a chorus of boos (not too surprising in a state where John McCain captured 60 percent of the vote).

The folks at the Cajundome regard the BP accident as a fluke, a one-of-a-kind incident. Their most cited critique of the moratorium is that if an airplane falls out of the sky accidentally, the federal government doesn’t step in and shut down the entire airline industry.

One pastor was quoted saying simply: “The greatest risk to our economy is the moratorium. Our greatest obstacle to our recovery is man-made.”

It’s true that it’s not only the fishermen whose jobs are at great risk. With 33 deepwater rigs (and their $165 million in wages) frozen by the moratorium the concerns of the Cajundome crowd were legitimate. Many of those frozen rigs and jobs have already moved on to other sites in Brazil, Africa and Venezuela. In Louisiana, where one out of four jobs is tied to the oil industry – some 320,000 in all, creating a $70 billion a year business – BP has set up a $100 million fund for unemployed oil workers that may yet prove insufficient.

The three-hour rally was ready-made theater for local politicians, including Governor Bobby Jindal, who led cheers of “Lift the Ban, Lift the Ban, Lift the Ban” and joined in the Obama-bashing by suggesting, “Our people don’t want a BP check or an unemployment check. We want to go back to work.”

Outside the Cajundome protestors with signs supporting more careful drilling, concerns for the environment, the wildlife and the fisheries were kept to the fringes, behind police tape. This was a day for the oil industry workers to have their complaints heard.