A year of tumbling oil prices has caused thousands of job losses throughout Louisiana, slowed energy production, delayed new investment, and sent state and local officials scrambling to plug budget holes created by the industry’s latest boom-or-bust cycle.
As prices sank below $35 per barrel last week to hit six-year lows, the latest federal jobs numbers had a grim look: Louisiana’s sector that includes oil and gas jobs lost more than 10,000 workers — nearly 19 percent — in the 12 months ending in November.
That’s the lowest point since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began using its current tracking system in 1990.
“Every day, I hope we hit bottom, until we get up the next day and realize the bottom is (lower) than we thought,” said Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph, whose sales tax revenue fell nearly 14 percent in the first 10 months of the year.
Talk around holiday dinner tables throughout Louisiana is certain to include questions about whether the state is headed toward another devastating recession along the lines of the 1980s oil bust.
Even after an 18-month slump that saw oil prices fall by two-thirds from a high of nearly $110 a barrel, most state leaders and regional economists aren’t yet sounding that alarm siren. They say Louisiana’s economy has diversified and become less reliant on energy in the past three decades.
“Although we have job losses related to oil prices, we still have thousands of jobs available in other sectors,” said Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
Still, the slide continued Friday: Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, slipped 18 cents to $36.88 per barrel. It fell as low as $36.41 during trading, within 21 cents of an 11-year low.
West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, finished at $34.73 per barrel, down 22 cents and getting close to a seven-year low.
To make things worse, natural gas has sunk to 16-year lows as demand has fallen during this mild winter heating season.
Even since last month, oil prices have slipped from a per-barrel average of $44, though federal forecasts predict prices will bounce back to average $56 in 2016.
While oil producers have taken a hit, U.S. consumers have benefited: Regular retail gasoline prices have stayed low, averaging $2.16 per gallon nationally in November, which was 13 cents less than the month before and 75 cents less than a year earlier.
“The entire industry is certainly slowing down,” said Shane Guidry, chairman and chief executive officer of Harvey Gulf International Marine, a New Orleans supply vessel operator that serves the oil and gas industry.
Worse in other states
Still, state officials say the financial hit felt by Louisiana’s economy is less severe than what other energy-dependent states have experienced.
Through midyear, the mining sector’s losses were not as damaging to Louisiana’s output of goods and services as in Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, according to Steven Grissom, the Louisiana Economic Development secretary.
Although it’s a main reason for the low oil prices, the abundance of cheap energy developed through new drilling technologies has sparked tens of billions of dollars’ worth of investment in industrial projects in Louisiana that are planned or in the works.
While uncertainty surrounding oil prices may cause some delays, Grissom said many projects are still on the table. He noted last week’s announcement by Axiall Corp. and Lotte Chemical Corp. of plans to spend $3 billion on chemical manufacturing projects in Lake Charles.
Still, the effect of low oil prices is reverberating throughout Louisiana.
“That is going to be felt throughout our region because the place that they’re cutting back is the Gulf of Mexico,” said retired LSU economist Loren Scott, who has tracked the region’s economic outlook for decades.
Major layoffs have hit Louisiana’s workforce throughout 2015. Last month, Houston-based Hercules Offshore cut 50 jobs. Earlier this year, Bollinger Marine and Fabrication laid off 275 oilfield and production workers, Houston-based oilfield services firm Baker Hughes laid off 88, and Oklahoma-based Enable Midstream cut more than 100 workers in Shreveport.
Big oil companies haven’t been immune from the downturn either.
Chevron plans to cut 350 jobs in the Gulf of Mexico next year as it moves to sell its shallow-water assets to focus on deepwater drilling.
And Royal Dutch Shell plans to lay off 2,800 positions worldwide next year after its merger with British rival BG Group is complete. The cuts, totaling about 3 percent of the merged company’s workforce, will come on top of Shell’s effort to trim its global workforce by 7,500 workers, a tally that’s likely to include some jobs in New Orleans.
Less government revenue
Having the downturn last so long is troubling to some observers, including Scott, who acknowledged that predictions of price rebounds to the mid-$50s for 2016 “probably look to people like incredibly foolish.”
“In this industry, you expect ups and downs,” he said. “At this stage, it’s just always really unnerving.”
Any financial hit to the drilling industry reduces sales and income taxes, hurting state and local governments and causing panic among officials in Louisiana’s most oil-dependent areas, such as St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes.
With every dollar drop in the price of oil, Louisiana loses almost $12 million in revenue. The state’s current budget projections assume a per-barrel price of nearly $48, a figure that likely will have to be reduced in coming months.
In Terrebonne, sales tax collections for October were down more than 20 percent compared with a year earlier. Through the first 10 months of 2015, collections were down about $13 million from 2014, said Parish President Michel Claudet, who isn’t optimistic about a quick fix.
“I think it’s going to continue to go down even further,” he said. “Right now, oil has not rebounded. I continue to hear people tell me stories about how they think it’s going to get better, but I don’t see it.”
In St. Mary, sales tax collections were off 33 percent last month compared with 2014, said Henry “Bo” LaGrange, the parish’s chief administrative officer. For the first 11 months of the year, collections were down about $9.3 million.
“We’re all being very cautious and watching that very closely,” he said.
In Franklin, a city of about 7,700 in St. Mary, officials last week approved a 5 percent pay cut for the city’s 92 employees, set to take effect in February. Like some of the oil firms in the parish, Mayor Raymond Harris Jr. also has resorted to layoffs.
“I have more people asking me for jobs than normally,” he said of residents grappling with losing a job in the oil patch. “I’ve always had people coming to City Hall looking for work, but now that number has increased substantially.”
Help from increased exports?
Industry observers are still wondering when prices will turn a corner.
“The scenario that’s playing out right now is making relief look more and more remote, at least in the near term,” said David Dismukes, executive director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies. “I just don’t see anything right now that’s going to pull Louisiana out of this free fall.”
But some congressional leaders hoped to provide a lift to the industry by voting last week to end the four-decade-old embargo on exporting crude oil. The move stirred mixed reactions as to whether it will immediately benefit Louisiana and U.S. consumers, considering the global oil glut and already low oil and gasoline prices.
U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, a leading proponent of the change, believes that ending the ban will reverse some job losses through work building new export infrastructure, such as barges or tankers or new oil storage facilities — like three that Canadian company Enbridge Inc. plans to build in the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated $5 billion price tag.
“You’re seeing people being laid off left and right, and they’re saying that there’s another wave of layoffs coming by February,” said Scalise, whose district includes hard-hit oil patch cities such as Houma. “You’ll also see more pipelines being built and a lot more jobs that will come with that and then, ultimately, getting thousands of workers that will be employed to create energy for the rest of the world.”
Proponents of lifting the ban say it will spur job growth and add tens of billions of dollars to the nation’s coffers by allowing the U.S. to export oil overseas, potentially lowering international crude prices for consumers.
Once thought to be out of reach, the push to end the export ban gained traction recently as hydraulic fracturing spread and some lawmakers more closely followed oil’s tailspin.
Some economists say exporting is unlikely to lead to major economic benefits for Louisiana because the price differential between domestic and foreign crude has narrowed.
Scalise is unmoved. “I haven’t heard anybody say that it won’t create jobs,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.