GUEST COLUMN: Offshore Energy Development Offers Huge Employment Potential

Nov 6, 2012

With the release of the final jobs report before the election, pundits are again turning their attention to the current state of employment in the United States. Do the numbers mean we are in an economic recovery or still in the throes of an economic downturn?  What implications does this have for the elections?

Regardless of the election outcome, a more important question is simply this: where can we generate more jobs? The answer is simple. The offshore energy industry is poised to increase the number of jobs available. No, this is not the shifting of jobs to offshore locations outside the United States. This is a different type of offshore. This is energy production from American resources; employing American workers and meeting domestic energy demand that helps our economy grow. Offshore energy employment consists of high-paying positions that generate real income for the communities from which the workers originate.

According to numbers issued by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil and natural gas extraction accounted directly for 195,000 additional employees in September. This figure represents a drop from August, yet still accounts for an 8.3 percent jump from September 2011, according to seasonally adjusted numbers. Furthermore, a study by IHS concludes that the U.S. oil and natural-gas rush is supporting 1.7 million jobs. IHS also forecasts, that because of unconventional oil and natural gas development, the number of U.S. jobs in this booming industry will swell to 2.5 million by 2015 and to nearly 3.5 million jobs in 2035. This will be “high-quality and high-paying” work paying more than manufacturing jobs.

Clearly, policies that support the continued operation and expansion of the oil and natural gas industry translate into concrete, bottom-line job numbers. At a time when the economy is struggling to keep up with population growth and a large quantity of underemployed individuals leaving the workforce, the ability to generate these kinds of broad, energy-related job increases is a boon to the overall economy.

It is difficult to split out exact numbers for the offshore energy sector alone, but there is a story to be told from the employment numbers where the industry is centered. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently reported that, despite the overall recession, Louisiana's employment numbers have remained fairly steady. In August, unemployment in the state was at 7.4 percent, compared with 8.1 percent nationally. That rate is more or less consistent with a year ago, when it was at 7.3 percent.

The strength of the offshore energy employment sector is even more evident in the Houma, Louisiana area, including Bayou Cane and Thibodaux, where the preliminary unemployment rate in August was just 4.9 percent, down from 5.3 percent a year ago.

Furthermore, in his 2012 economic outlook for the region, economist Loren Scott, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University, predicts the area will add 6,000 jobs over the next two years.

There are also tremendous job opportunities in the rapidly growing renewable energy sector.  In October, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported that large-scale development of wind power off the Mid-Atlantic coast could create more than 70,000 jobs from New York to Virginia. Those jobs would be created by a new industrial base needed to manufacture, build, operate and maintain the towering wind turbines, and an additional 40,000 jobs would be needed to serve the supply chain. The job growth would be realized over a 10-year build out of the offshore industry.

While the offshore renewable industry has focused on the Mid-Atlantic region as a starting point, the traditional oil and natural gas industry remains severely constrained, operating only in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico, and a small area of offshore Alaska. Despite being constrained for decades to investing only in these limited regions, which comprise just 15 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, the industry continues to create many good-paying jobs. Imagine what could be accomplished if there were fewer constraints on where the industry can operate. Expanding access to the Southeastern Atlantic, California, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico could open the door for significantly increased national employment.

When the political discussion turns to jobs, we would all do well to remember that there is an industry that is already creating good jobs in America. Freed from unnecessary constraints, the offshore energy industry is prepared to generate many more employment opportunities that will help turn around the American employment picture. 

Bill Chiles is President, Chief Executive Officer & Director of Bristow Group, Inc. and Chairman of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA)

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