Discuss as:

For oil workers, accidents are 'a risk you take'

Gulf Oil Spill

By Cynthia Joyce, msnbc.com

PORT FOURCHON, La. -- On the drive south along Highway 1 toward Louisiana's southernmost port -- currently the staging area for efforts to contain the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico -- billboards advertising fresh seafood and offshore drilling jobs dot the landscape in equal measure.  As the road narrows, so does the range of industry: Down here, there's mostly just fishing and drilling, and although people sometimes speak of them in either/or terms in the face of an epic environmental disaster, they've cohabitated for decades.

While workers in the Port Fourchon area on Tuesday afternoon weren't downplaying the tragic oil rig explosion and huge spill that resulted, concerns about the impact on the fishing industry took a backseat to worries over whether the incident will ultimately lead to less drilling.

"All I know is, I come here from North Carolina to work," said Norman Kent, captain of a supply boat for offshore oil rigs. "Can I get this work in North Carolina? No. So I do not want to see it go away. As tragic as it is, I'd hate to see this one thing make people say, 'Whoa, no more.'"

Norman Kent David Friedman / msnbc.com Norman Kent, captain of an offshore oil rig supply boat, says he's worried that the spill will turn public opinion against offshore drilling.

On the day of the explosion, Kent was waiting to be airlifted out to an oil rig support vessel when his flight was cancelled.  "I knew when I was sitting in air logistics something was wrong," he recalled. "When I heard what happened, it was like, 'Holy Toledo.' I've only been out here a couple of years, and I've never felt endangered, but that's made me think, that there's always that risk."

In a region where "Petroleum Ed" has been on the curriculum in public schools, it seems to go without saying that drilling for oil is a risk worth taking, says Gary Ellis, general manager of GOL (Gulf Offshore Logistics) Docks, a Port Fourchon company that provides support to offshore oil rigs.

Ellis started working in the industry in 1972, as a "roustabout" on an oil rig ("that's the person who does pretty much anything no one else wants to do" he explained), making $8 an hour, a decent wage back then for a job that today would pay about $32 an hour to start. 

Gary Ellis and Chuck Falgout David Friedman / msnbc.com Gary Ellis, left, and Chuck Falgout, in the offices of Gulf Offshore Logistics Docks in in Port Fourchon, La., look at block chart that shows the oild field locations in the Gulf of Mexico. Ellis is the docks' general manager and Falgout is the health, safety and environmental manager.

"It was a different time. There were fewer safety regulations then," he said, recalling the Shell Bay Marchand and platform fires in 1970, which killed four workers. Until this year, that event had stood as the biggest rig blowout he'd seen.

He believes that incident, which eventually led to tighter regulations across the offshore oil industry, prompted a greater public outcry locally, because fishermen made up a larger percentage of the population at the time.

Ellis also said he has no confidence that investigators will ever be able to determine what caused the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

"I don't think the real truth will ever come out about what happened there," he said.

But asked whether there should have been better contingency plans for handling an accident of this scale, Ellis shook his head no. "I don't think anybody could've done anything different than what's been done so far" he said. "It's like asking, 'Where was the contingency plan for 9/11?' It's something you try to prepare for, but you don't think it'll ever happen.  But it's the risk you take."

And Chuck Falgout, health, safety and environmental manager at GOL, expressed frustration over what he sees as political posturing in response to the crisis.

"There are always inherent elements of danger -- there's always a worst case scenario -- but this is our livelihood," Falgout said softly in his Cajun accent. "People can talk about 'clean energy,' but that's not been developed to where this is now. So finally Obama was looking into drilling off the shelf – and now he's going to step back?"

Prior generations of Falgout's family had been subsistence fisherman in the region, and many members of his family continue to fish today, he said. During the 1970s and '80s, he explained, many of the local fisherman felt like oil exploration was cutting in on their territory. 

If there's less animosity now, he conceded, it's partly because there are fewer fisherman. 
 "People in my family who have shrimp trawlers, they always tell me, 'Don't be a fisherman,'" he said. "And I wouldn't want to be. There are no guarantees, no benefits. It's a lot more of a gamble."