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Oil rig workers forced to job hunt after drill ban

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CAIN BURDEAU
June 17, 2010
— Mr. Charlie has seen the up and downs over the years in the oil patch off Louisiana's coast, but this could be the toughest slump of all.

Earlier this week, the steel rig stationed on the Atchafalaya River graduated what could be one of its last classes of workers prepping for the rigors of offshore life.


President Barack Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf has sent shudders across the coast's offshore oil industry where no one knows just how extensive or long-lasting the damage to jobs may be.


Louisiana has long been indebted to the oil industry. Its thousands of good-paying jobs offshore workers frequently earn $50,000 a year or more counterbalance the low-wage tourism industry in the state's southern tier of parishes.


But that changed at least temporarily after the oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing the black gold into the waters. Now, many of those who counted on making it in the oil patch are out stumping for jobs.


Rodney Phillips, a 38-year-old heavy equipment operator from Angie, La., was in a nine-day class when the moratorium was declared. His father made a good living from 20 years of offshore work with Texaco.


With the likelihood of quick offshore employment fading, Phillips was headed to the south Louisiana cities of Venice and Grand Isle in his Chevy truck in search of a job on one of the boats being hired to work the BP spill.


"There's jobs doing everything down there right now: Crewboats, tug boats, heavy equipment. Whatever best offer I get is where I will start off," he said.


Virgil Allen, a safety specialist who manages Mr. Charlie, owned by the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition in Morgan City, said one more training class was scheduled this week.


"The moratorium is stopping all the regular training," said Allen. The training rig, he said, is being turned into a clearinghouse for workers looking for oil spill response jobs, like the one Phillips hopes to get.


BP this week agreed to establish a $100 million fund to support oil rig workers idled by the six-month moratorium, separate from $20 billion it is setting aside for Gulf damages at the White House's insistence. No details have been released yet of how the rig worker money will be paid out. The administration also was to ask Congress for special unemployment insurance for the workers.


Still, almost no one is happy about the moratorium.


"Bringing drilling to a screeching halt will deal another blow to Louisiana workers and businesses that are already reeling from the impact of the oil disaster," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.


In the angst over drilling, perhaps no place in Louisiana will feel the economic ripple effects of the moratorium greater than Mr. Charlie, a landmark in the heart of Louisiana's offshore history.


The brainchild of Marksville, La., marine engineer Alden J. "Doc" Laborde, Mr. Charlie was the first U.S. submersible rig to drill for oil. On its first outing for the Shell Oil Co. in 1954, the rig struck oil in a well near the South Pass of the Mississippi River, not far from the blown-out BP-operated well.


"Shell Oil's South Pass 27 discovery loudly announced the arrival of offshore Louisiana as a major new producing area," writes Tyler Priest in "The Offshore Imperative," a history of Shell's oil and gas exploration. Priest is a historian at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.


Mr. Charlie a steel platform stuck on a submersible barge cut quite a figure by 1950s standards and was celebrated with galas and a Life magazine article that called it a "singularly monstrous contraption."


After its retirement in 1984, it was anchored at Morgan City, a sleepy oil town of 12,000 where the offshore industry got its start in 1947. In short order the Mr. Charlie was turned into a training center for divers, grips, cooks and riggers looking for work in the Gulf.


It's been a great success. Until the Deepwater Horizon disaster, workers attracted by the offshore boom came from around the world for training.


Mr. Charlie has the feel of a well-worn, stately ship.


"The workers have to live on offshore time: They sleep here, eat their meals here. It's all done just like they'll find it offshore," said Allen on the narrow staircase to the Mr. Charlie's modular living quarters.


The last group to go through was a boisterous group of about 20 unemployed or semi-employed workers taking part in a state Labor Department retraining program.


Over a recent weekend, they sweated in the Louisiana sun as they got in and out of haz-mat suits and got drilled in basic rigging techniques, such as putting a pipe together.


"I need to pay my bills," said Rodney Hebert, who said he was between jobs.


Despite the temporary downturn in Louisiana's oil industry, the Mr. Charlie will likely survive.


When classes aren't in, it still stays open as a museum.


And after all, no one really expects the oil patch to ever rock like it did in the 1950s when company towns and wealth poured into the backwaters of Louisiana.


"The second largest helipad in the world was in Morgan City," Allen said. "The other was Di An, Vietnam."



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