WASHINGTON — When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has to defend the Obama Administration's six month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling, his toughest critics are often those in his own party.
Oil state Democrats are finding themselves in the best position to influence the Democratic administration as it balances environmental concerns with economic anxiety in the Gulf.
In the Senate, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is a passionate advocate for drilling to offset the economic hit the region has already taken and in the House, Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, is using his platform on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to push to re-start the rigs in the Gulf. And so far, the lawmakers have succeeded in getting the moratorium changed to allow shallow water drilling.
"My goal is to get people to work," said Green in an interview. The lawmaker questioned Salazar at a hearing last week about speeding up the Obama Administration’s latest moratorium, due to expire Nov. 30.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, the dozens of rigs pulled out of service since May will cost 46,000 direct and indirect jobs over the six months. The moratorium’s impact on the four Gulf states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – is estimated at $2.1 billion by Louisiana State University.
"What we do is that, we drill," said Green of Texas companies and workers who are feeling the hit.
The Democratic lawmaker told Salazar that he and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, “propose letting low-risk development and appraisal wells to be drilled while the Department of Interior continues the assessment on deep water exploratory wells.”
Salazar conceded that “it may be that the moratorium could be adjusted based on zones of risk” but the administration is sticking by its six month timeframe, which is once again being challenged in court. The Interior Dept.’s moratorium, revised after a court order rejected the first one, now faces another court challenge Aug. 11 in New Orleans.
The first order, found to be “arbitrary,” banned drilling in waters of 500 feet or more while the latest moratorium suspends drilling at wells using subsea blowout preventers or surface blowout preventers on a floating facility.
In the meantime, Democrats, along with oil state Republicans, are weighing in by jawboning, writing letters, making speeches, and in the case of Louisiana, holding a rally Wednesday attended by over 15,000 in the Cajundome in support of drilling.
“We must continue this battle to end the moratorium and save the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are in jeopardy,” said Landrieu in a statement. The Louisiana lawmaker is the only Democrat in the Gulf states’ Senate delegation – putting more pressure on her to intercede with Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado.
“Louisiana families need certainty from our federal government that paychecks will not turn into pink slips,” said Landrieu, who is in “constant communication” with Salazar, according to an aide. “And,” said the fiery Landrieu, “our oil support companies need to know that the Gulf is open and ready for business.”