Growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was impossible not to feel the impact that the oil and natural gas industry had on southern Louisiana. Local businesses boomed with money from oil profits. Most people I knew had some connection to the industry, either by working in the oil field, or in one of its many support industries. Working offshore was one of the best paying jobs in southern Louisiana for a non-college graduate. In fact, you could make a lot more money working offshore than most college graduates could. My grandfather worked on an Exxon drilling platform for 40 years, and was able to comfortably support his wife and six children on his salary. Sadly, he was part of the last generation of Cajuns who could work in the oil field for 40 years, and get the gold watch treatment.
Oil played a huge role in Louisiana in the 20th century. Land based oil exploration began in Louisiana in the early 1900s, and the first offshore platform was built off the Louisiana coast in the 1940s. Many thousands of Cajun men were drawn to this industry in the years that followed. When oil and gas prices rose in the 1970s, Louisiana’s economy boomed. Oil companies built more rigs and hired more people on the assumption that the price of oil would reach $50 a barrel, a bet that was lost when prices crashed to $10 a barrel in the mid 1980s. In the aftermath of the crash, unemployment reached double digits and Louisiana residents experienced a deep recession, with many people losing their livelyhoods. While the rest of the country enjoyed a booming economy, the 1980s was a hard time for Louisiana and its citizens.
Most offshore workers work one of two types of shifts, a 7 & 7, or a 14 & 7, meaning 7 days working followed by 7 days off or 14 days working and 7 days off. I spent a summer working on a natural gas platform, and I can easily say it’s the hardest job I ever worked. I’d wake up at 4am every other Monday morning and drive out to Intracoastal City, deep in Vermilion Parish. There I’d take a 45 minute helicopter ride out to my platform with my co-workers. Once I arrived, I was put right to work. As low man on the totem poll, I was stuck doing most of the menial tasks, from unloading the supply boats, to sandblasting and painting the rig while dangling 150 ft over the water. At the end of a hard 12 hour day, I wound down as most roughnecks do, by eating lots of food, watching TV, and playing some cards or pool at night.
Life on a rig is full of all sorts of potential hazards. It’s very easy to lose a finger or toe, get struck by a heavy object, or throw your back out lifting something heavy. The risk of injury is multiplied by the remoteness of the rig. Any hospital emergency room is well over an hour away, and rig staff usually have minimal first aid training. Injuries are so common, in fact, that local law firms have created a cottage industry of offshore injury litigation. Sure, your back might not work again, but you’ll have the best bass boat in the neighborhood while you collect workman’s comp. Luckily, I survived my summer offshore with no injuries, but I’m convinced that had I stayed longer, it was just a matter of time before something happened to me.
Today, Louisiana remains the #1 producer of crude oil, and #2 producer of natural gas in the United States. With 19 operating crude oil refineries, it has the second largest refining capacity in the US. Louisiana supplies a quarter of the U.S. production of natural gas. There are currently more 2,300 active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. With oil prices over $110 a barrel, the industry is once again booming, though not at the same levels seen in the 1970s. There are many jobs to go around, but people who lived through the last recession are reluctant to return since they fear that there’s no long term future in the field. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.