Virginia business and political figures are establishing connections in Louisiana, seeking to learn from the Gulf of Mexico energy industry as the federal government prepares to grant the first leases for oil and gas production off the East Coast.
Bryan K. Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce in Virginia, has lived and worked in the Texas oil patch. But in Virginia, he’s learning a whole new game. “It’s different when you look at offshore drilling,” Stephens told me days after returning from a trip the Virginia group took to southern Louisiana at the end of March. With help from Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group, the Virginia group got a close look at what offshore energy development might bring to their state.
At Port Fourchon, La., they saw the density of industrial support. “About 250 companies on a few hundred acres,” Stephens said. They learned about the foundation of small businesses, from fabricating and welding shops to aviation services.
If the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management awards leases and exploration proceeds, the best prospects will determine where the industry center of gravity takes hold. Stephens said it’s important that if it’s in Virginia, the new energy industry does not disrupt the state’s other economic engines: the Navy, shipbuilding, fishing and tourism. “We don’t want to bring in the energy industry at the expense of any other industry,” he said. It must safely co-exist with commercial and recreational fishing, and the region’s immense beach tourism.
And if offshore energy does come, Virginia needs to get a new generation of workers trained. The growing U.S. energy and manufacturing sectors need more skilled technical workers. “We want to get out in front of this for our workforce. We’re challenged like that now” with finding workers for the existing maritime industries, Stephens said. “We’re talking to all the workforce development agencies, technical schools and community colleges. “These are good-paying jobs. You can start at $60,000 to $70,000,” Stephens said.
Supporters of mid-Atlantic offshore drilling say it could bring 25,000 jobs to Virginia from onshore construction, shipbuilding and offshore services. “That’s what we expect,” Stephens said. “It depends on where the epicenter is.”