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Choppy waters ahead for offshore oil

A "pollution control chamber" sits on the back of a ship in Port Fourchon, La. It will be lowered 5,000 feet below the surface of the water to capture oil gushing from the collapsed oil well off the coast of Louisiana.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: They're calling it a dome, but what's being lowered down into the Gulf of Mexico today is more like a giant concrete box. It's about 40-feet tall and if everything goes right, by Sunday or Monday it'll be corralling a lot of the leaking oil and piping it to a tanker on the surface. It's BP's best shot at a short-term technological fix.

But meanwhile, the oil keeps leaking. And as it happens, about 70,000 oil and gas industry professionals are gathered this week in Houston for their annual Offshore Technology Conference.

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz reports now from the Sustainability Desk.


ROB Schmitz: Oil spill? If you work in the oil industry, those two little words mean your lips are zipped.

SCHMITZ: Why don't you want to comment on this?

INDUSTRY EXECUTIVE: I think you should contact Transocean or the authority.

This industry executive started turning away as soon as I asked a question. He was one of many who stayed mum about the spill. When I tried to take a photo of -- get this -- a giant valve, one company's employee practically tackled me. Conference security made me delete the photo from my camera.

One person who didn't mind talking was David Doig, CEO of OPITO, a company that sets global safety standards for the industry. He foresees choppy waters for offshore drilling in the U.S.

DAVID DOIG: I think it'll be different. I think it'll probably be far more regulated than ever before.

In other words, big oil isn't exactly popular. Industry expert John White of Triple-Double, a Houston consulting firm, hopes all the attention from lawmakers who plan hearings on Capitol Hill next week doesn't lead to an outright offshore drilling ban.

JOHN WHITE: Reality is, behind big oil there's, we estimate, 80,000-100,000 jobs for primarily U.S. citizens in the Gulf of Mexico, either directly or in support functions.

That's everything from engineers who work in Houston to drillers, motormen and roustabouts who live on the rigs. While almost all offshore rigs are assembled in Asia, U.S. companies build this specialized technical equipment that operates on the seabed and below.

Rice University researcher Amy Jaffe says all this work has provided an economic cushion for the area.

AMY JAFFE: We are one of the few parts of the country that has not had a terrible economic downturn, and so if we suddenly saw a tremendous amount of technical jobs lost in our economy because we were going to stop our offshore industry...

That would lead to an increased dependence on foreign oil, she says. The U.S. already imports around two-thirds of its oil. As for the remaining third the U.S. produces, a third of that comes from offshore.

One conference-goer without a hint of doom and gloom was Meryl Lee. Her company Kepner Plastics makes the booms now snaking across the Gulf helping containing the spill.

MERYL LEE: We're ordering lots of extra materials and talking about putting a second shift on.

Schmitz: So business is good?

LEE: Business is booming. I'm sorry, I had to say that.

In fact, booming business might just be the unintended consequence of a more regulated industry. Take Cameron, for example. The company's been in the headlines because it made the blowout preventer valve that investigators think may have malfunctioned, allowing the spill to spread. Industry experts say more regulations will most likely mean a greater need for safety devices, the kind that companies like Cameron make.

In Houston, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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I actually know a witness to the 'Giant Valve' situation. It seems that Mr. Schmitz was being purposefully disrespectful to the blatant rules given all over the convention. It is not new that a company would want no photos taken of their product(s) in this or any other convention. What is wrong is that Mr. Schmitz would risk employee's jobs in order to make his story seem darker than it really is. A company has a right to protect its assets and products at a convention and Mr. Schmitz was handled with more fairness than he deserved. He should be thankful he wasn't removed from the premesis. Next time you wish to sizzle a story, don't risk employee's jobs to do it.

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