Fifty-two days into the Gulf Coast disaster, President Barack Obama offered a panacea to Gulf Coast residents disgruntled by his increasingly unpopular moratorium on deepwater drilling: a demand that BP pay the salaries of oil workers laid off because of the ban.
The president's demand came as the moratorium grew harder to justify: A group of scientists from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) said that they didn't recommend a deepwater moratorium, despite the Obama administration's claims that they did.
The seven NAE scientists wrote a letter to lawmakers in response to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's May 27 report on the disaster. The report announced Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling and said that the recommendations "have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering."
The seven experts disagree. In their letter to lawmakers, the group said that the administration added the moratorium after the NAE scientists read the initial report. Though they did agree with some recommendations in the initial report, the scientists oppose a ban on deepwater drilling: "It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation's economy which may be greater than that of the spill."
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association estimated that the moratorium affects 26,000 to 46,000 oil jobs and could cost as much as $330 million a month in direct wages lost. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, said the ban also affects offshore support services and estimated the ban could impact some 330,000 jobs in Louisiana alone-about 13.4 percent of the state's workforce.
In a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Landrieu pressed Salazar about the NAE contradiction. The secretary conceded, "It was my decision to issue the moratorium." When Landrieu asked Salazar if the administration would ask BP to pay salaries for workers losing their jobs because of the moratorium, the secretary replied, "The answer to that is, yes we will."
Some legal experts doubt that the Obama administration could force BP to pay for lost wages stemming from a government policy, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the moratorium is BP's fault and the company should pay.
A growing chorus of Gulf Coast politicians-including Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana-say the moratorium is devastating to a region already suffering from massive hits to its seafood industry, and that the administration should allow drilling to continue with the appropriate safety measures.
At least one victim of the Gulf Coast disaster agrees. Natalie Roshto of Liberty, Miss., lost her husband, Shane, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing him and 10 other workers. Roshto told a congressional committee that she supports beefed up safety regulations to avert future disasters, but she added: "I fully support offshore drilling, and I always will."