If there's one message that has tolled consistently from the mouth of nearly every White House official over the past two years, it's that "jobs are our top priority." But the administration's strict moratorium on deepwater drilling would seem to trade jobs for a higher priority.
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A federal judge in New Orleans on Tuesday ruled to overturn Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, saying the administration acted arbitrarily and capriciously in issuing it. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said it was "only a matter of time before more business and jobs and livelihoods will be lost." Elsewhere in his decision, the judge said that the court was "unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he will issue a new moratorium within the coming days. Given that the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is already considered the greatest environmental crisis in U.S. history, some Americans may side with the administration's immediate preventative measures, even if they mean job losses. Which they would. A report by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority found total damages related to the six-month moratorium—note: not the oil leak—could reach $11.6 billion for the state of Louisiana, including $2.3 billion lost in wages and income. Some 37,000 jobs could be lost in that state alone over the next year, according to the report.
Deepwater drilling provided 70 percent of the oil from federal Gulf of Mexico production in 2007, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Earlier this month Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, asked the administration to speed up the process of reviewing offshore safety regulations so that thousands of domestic drilling jobs wouldn't be lost to other countries. "These rigs won't stay in the Gulf for six months, idling at a cost of $500,000 a day," Landrieu says. "They can't be financially responsible to their investors and do that. They have to move to where they can drill. So they will. We have already gotten signals that they will pick up and move off the coast of Africa or Brazil or Cuba or other places, like Venezuela, to drill. They can't sit idly in the Gulf."
But job woes are not necessarily the best guide for all policy. "It seems to me we should look at jobs policy and ask, 'what's the best thing to do for jobs policy?' Then we should look at environmental policy and say, 'what's the best thing we should do for environmental policy?'" says Sheldon Danziger, a professor at University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. "Let's say that tomorrow we found out that coal-fired plants were responsible for lots of birth defects. Then would you say, 'gee, it's a bad time to be shutting down coal-fired plants—we're going to lose so many jobs'?"
The unemployment rate lingers at 9.7 percent. Last month, just 41,000 jobs were added in the private sector. Congress is in the process of extending unemployment benefits yet again. Americans need more jobs, and they're sensitive to any losses. "I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue," Obama intoned in his Oval Office oil-leak speech last week.