Oil spill means work for many mariners, but longer term, future remains cloudy

Louisiana towboat captain David Whitehurst is accustomed to picking up his next job by phoning around to vessel operators and “hustling” his services. This summer, however, it’s his phone doing the ringing.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster and massive oil-spill response in the Gulf of Mexico have stoked unusually high demand for professional mariners and deck hands, as BP Plc. hires hundreds of vessels and round-the-clock crews.

Mariners from the Gulf Coast and beyond are hard at work on skimmers, tugboats and offshore vessels. The spill-response work is expected to last for most of 2010, as cleanup will still be needed long after relief wells finally stop the oil flow from the leaking riser.

Even while they are getting steady work now, the region’s vessel operators and crews are worried that the BP spill could harm their long-term economic future. Uncertainty over the Obama administration’s attempt to halt deepwater drilling, a congressional assault on the Jones Act and the potential for stricter environmental laws could threaten maritime jobs.

For now, Whitehurst says he has never seen such strong demand for professional mariners. The 59-year-old licensed master of towing is aboard the towing vessel Dari Lynn stringing 200-foot barges across inlets to prevent encroaching crude oil from entering Louisiana coastal bayous. Everyone is sad about the environmental disaster, he said, and plenty of Gulf Coast mariners are contributing to the spill response.

“It’s actually producing work,” Whitehurst said in late June. “Otherwise, I’d be hustling for work. In the last week, I’ve had four calls with job offers. That’s more than I’ve had in the last 10 years. And I’m not the one doing the calling. They’re calling me.”

The vessels and mariners involved in the recovery aren’t only from the Gulf Coast. Spill-response and research vessels from as far away as Maine and from overseas have joined the BP-funded fleet.

Because the work is constant, relief crews are needed to supplement the regular crews. Operators are offering mates $400 a day to lure them to the Gulf, and trip pilots are earning as much as $600 a day, said Capt. Joe Dady, president of the National Mariners Association, formerly the Gulf Coast Mariners Association.

While most of the vessels are involved in skimming, the overall response has created demand for a diverse array of maritime services. Relief crews are needed for the spill-response specialty ships and for “Cajun navy” offshore supply vessels that transport personnel and equipment to the Deepwater Horizon site. Tugboats also are plenty busy.

“They are creating sand berms, so there is dredging going on, and I see that in some places they are using barges to block inlets,” Dady said. “There is a lot of equipment going down there.”

Whitehurst and the 56-foot Dari Lynn maneuvered barges into place to protect entrances to Lake Pontchartrain and bayous in the vicinity of the Rigolets strait, including Chef Menteur Pass and Unknown Pass. Oil began pushing into Lake Pontchartrain in July.

“The barges are a breakwater. They’re to protect the spill booms that are deployed behind the barges,” Whitehurst said. “We string the barges out. Once we do that, we pull one of them back out to make a 200-foot hole to let the shrimp boats out and things like that. We made a gate with a piece of pipe. Once the oil is here, they will close (the hole) and that’s it.”

Work may be steady now, but diverse political moves are afoot that may harm the ability of U.S. mariners to find work in the future. Citing a lack of safety, the Obama administration ordered a moratorium on deepwater drilling off the U.S. coast. The Offshore Marine Service Association (OMSA) opposed the move, stating that it would result in major job losses.

In June, a federal judge in New Orleans overturned the moratorium, finding that the government hadn’t provided a sound legal basis for stopping the drill work. The Obama administration appealed, but was not immediately able to convince the courts to issue a stay, meaning drilling could continue pending the appeal.

However, the initial moratorium announcement prompted the industry to move some equipment elsewhere. More than 40 vessels were idled, OMSA said.

Members of Congress have used the Gulf spill to attempt to weaken the Jones Act and allow more foreign-flagged vessels to operate on the nation’s near-coastal waters. In June, Sen. John McCain cited the Deepwater Horizon disaster specifically as he introduced a bill to repeal the Jones Act in its entirety.

“This antiquated and protectionist law has been prominently featured in the news as of late due to the Gulf Coast oil spill,” McCain said in a statement accompanying the bill. The former Republican presidential candidate said the 1920s law “hinders free trade and favors labor unions over consumers.”

McCain’s remarks angered some U.S. maritime organizations, who noted that plenty of foreign-flag vessels have been part of the spill response. The Maritime Cabotage Task Force, a pro-Jones Act coalition of domestic operators and shipyards, noted that the law already allows waivers for foreign vessels if they are needed in emergencies. The task force membership promised that it “has not and will not stand in the way” of the international assistance in the Gulf.

The U.S. State Department said equipment from nine foreign countries — including 24 foreign-flag vessels — was involved in the spill response in May and June.

Dady noted that less than half of U.S. mariners are unionized. The percentage is even lower on the Gulf Coast.

“McCain is playing on the emotions of people right now,” Dady said. “He sees an opportunity here, but I don’t think his facts are correct. He talks about unionism blocking free trade. It’s not about organized labor, it’s about American workers, period.”

The true legacy of the BP disaster for U.S. mariners is that they may face even more safety and clean-water restrictions in the coming years, Dady said.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Dady said. “Some guys might get more work out of it, but long term, it’s going to cause the government to create more laws, and that might hurt us. The Coast Guard will zero in on the licenses and the training, and there will be more environmental laws. They don’t really go after the industry; they go after the worker, and that’s what we’re in for.”

As tar balls finally began washing up near Lake Pontchartrain in July, Whitehurst figured Dari Lynn’s response work might be just beginning. Eventually, though, the spill recovery will taper off, and the tugs will remove the barges and boom. And he’ll be dialing his phone, hustling for work again.

“You’re going back to square one,” Whitehurst said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff