[UPDATE: During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing today, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu pressed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on why he went against the recommendation of the majority of experts who weighed in on ways to address safety in the Gulf as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Landrieu pleaded with the interior secretary to reduce the six-month moratorium, noting that among the companies planning layoffs because of the moratorium is Lafayette-based C&C Technologies. View the exchange here.]

ORIGINAL STORY: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has some explaining to do. The panel of experts the Obama administration turned to for advice on how to address offshore drilling safety in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and ongoing gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico are speaking out, saying they never agreed to the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling and that Salazar misrepresented their position. The INDsider has obtained a copy of the letter penned by those experts, along with a fax they sent to Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter.

In no uncertain terms, the experts claim Salazar falsely implied that they supported the six-month drilling moratorium. However, in his May 27 report to President Barack Obama, the interior secretary said a panel of seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering “peer reviewed” his recommendations, among which is a six-month moratorium on all drilling in water depths of more than 500 feet. That ban went into effect a few days later, shutting down more than 30 rigs.

In their letter, the angry panelists clarify that what they reviewed was an earlier version of the secretary’s report that suggested a six-month moratorium only on new drilling — and only in waters deeper than 1,000 feet.

“We broadly agree with the detailed recommendations in the report and compliment the Department of Interior for its efforts. However, we do not agree with the six month blanket moratorium on floating drilling,” they write. “A moratorium was added after the final review and was never agreed to by the contributors.” The panel members say the blanket moratorium will not measurably reduce risk and will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy, which may greater than that of the oil spill. They say Salazar’s report highlights the safety record of the industry in drilling more than 50,000 wells on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, more than 2,000 of which were in water over 1,000 feet and 700 in depths greater than 5,000 feet. Noting that the safety of offshore workers is much better than that of the average worker in the U.S., they write, “We have been using subsea blowout preventers since the mid-1960s. The only other major pollution event from offshore drilling was 41 years ago. This was from a shallow water platform in Santa Barbara Channel drilled with a BOP on the surface of the platform.”

In the cover letter to Jindal, the panelists note that the secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, “but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions.” Read the experts’ letter here.

An Interior Department spokeswoman agreed that the experts had not given their blessing for a moratorium, and said the department did not mean to leave the impression they had, The Times-Picayune reports today.

At least one Louisiana oil services company, Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, is mounting a legal challenge to the deepwater ban, claiming the federal government has not shown justification for the shutdown. The company filed suit late Monday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

Salazar’s ill-conceived overreaction, many argue, will compound the devastating impact of the environmental disaster, potentially displacing tens of thousands of oilfield-related jobs. If the more than 30 rigs shut down as a result of the moratorium pull up stakes, as some have already indicated they will do, the economy of south Louisiana could be damaged irreparably.

The Lafayette Economic Development Authority is estimating a $2.4 billion economic loss to the Lafayette metro area over the next year, including $466.7 million loss in wages and income and more than 7,700 jobs lost. Of the 7,756 jobs the Lafayette MSA stands to lose, 3,751 are direct jobs lost, according to LEDA. “These numbers reflect job losses across all segments of the economy — direct, indirect and induced — and represent currently existing jobs and jobs that have yet to be created (i.e. manpower for permitted wells that have not begun drilling). As the recovery continues, it is likely that many individuals who lost jobs, specifically in the energy industry, may be able to gain new employment as part of the recovery efforts, in other locales where the rigs will be deployed, and in other sectors of the economy, which will mitigate some of the negative impact on the labor force,” says LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux.



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