Louisiana's oil and gas coastline, running eastward from the Terrebonne-Lafourche area to the nether reaches of Plaquemines Parish, is the geographic Rodney Dangerfield of America. It gets no respect. More than a quarter of the nation's oil flows through this marsh-laden corridor, a substantive fact during an era when 'foreign dependence" has become a counter-mantra and energy demand is exploding. Instead of being protected like a strategic asset, however, the needs of 'the Energy Coast" have largely been overlooked by the feds.
Granted, the 2005 hurricane season shed some much-needed light and scrutiny on the region, but there's still a great deal of work left. Meanwhile, media attention and public sympathy are waning.
The swampy land supporting the industry is literally sinking, and coastal erosion is washing away what is left. Once-buried major pipelines lie exposed, and a lack of adequate hurricane protection puts everything " and everybody " in harm's way. It's a challenge drenched in irony as construction by oil companies and stagnant water pooled by manmade levees can both be blamed for many of these problems, although Mother Nature plays a strong hand as well.
If you listen closely to Louisiana officials, the Energy Coast has one vital need: money. The state Legislature recently approved a master plan outlining priorities for coastal restoration, hurricane protection and flood control. The price tag, which fluctuates, could reach $60 billion.
The message to the rest of the country is stark: You won't truly appreciate us until we're no longer here. You won't know what you had until it's gone. These are the lessons Louisiana officials hoped the country would have learned in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, but memories fade fast. A slew of Louisiana-based groups, however, are working to keep the message on the mind of America.
The La. 1 Coalition, which advocates transportation improvements to the storied highway leading to Port Fourchon and Grand Isle, points to a federal study that predicts an 80 percent increase in truck traffic to the region over the next decade, largely supporting the oil and gas sector. The group also forecasts that 'if La. 1 were to be rendered unserviceable due to high water, even for just a few days, the nation's energy supply would be crippled."
America's Wetland, a public-private nonprofit that has helped brand the Energy Coast, has its own stats. Among the 50 states, Louisiana's energy production ranks first for crude oil and second for natural gas. Those figures include production from the vast Outer Continental Shelf. Louisiana's coastal wetlands also provide storm protection for ports that carry 487 million tons of waterborne commerce annually, accounting for 19 percent of all such trade in the nation.
Sidney Coffee, the governor's closest advisor on coastal issues, is optimistic that the country is listening. Just to make sure, new state-run organizations such as the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which Coffee chairs, are ratcheting up the rhetoric. 'The needs here are urgent and the consequences of inaction or slow action will impact the entire nation because of the vital resources Louisiana's coast provides the U.S.," Coffee says.
Make no mistake, there have been strides. Gov. Kathleen Blanco sued the Interior Department last year to force the feds to increase the percentage of money Louisiana receives from drilling in certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico. The anticipated $500 million annual stream will speed implementation of the state's coastal master plan, but the real money won't start arriving for another decade.
More immediate hopes are pinned to passage of the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, which includes a number of hurricane protection projects for south Louisiana " including Morganza-to-the-Gulf, an unprecedented and controversial plan to shield Terrebonne and the surrounding area from devastating storms.
Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who represents the Energy Coast, has become a major player on these issues. In a recent speech on the House floor, Melancon took the fact sheets a step further, detailing how Louisiana's production is connected to nearly half of the total refining capacity in the United States.
'Based on its energy-producing value to the nation, acre for acre, Louisiana is the most valuable real-estate in the nation," he said. 'Two of the four strategic petroleum reserve storage facilities are also in Louisiana. Louisiana is a crucial part of America's Energy Coast and we need help."
Valsin A. Marmillion, a Houma native and director of the America's Wetland Foundation, said special commissions have been formed to promote sustainability policies and to build support for restoring coastal landscapes. The effort is geographically inclusive " Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama will band together; those states represent the seventh-largest economic engine in the world. 'We are bringing together the powerful Gulf energy-producing states with the leaders of government, industry and conservation in an open and ongoing dialogue," Marmillion says.
Scare tactics are not out of bounds for this group. For example, if Port Fourchon, roughly 60 miles below New Orleans, were to go under for any reason " flooded roads or infrastructure ravaged by a storm " the country would be cut off from about a fifth of the oil and gas it consumes each year.
Port Fourchon plays a vital role on the Energy Coast. It's connected to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which in turn services about 11 percent of the nation's foreign oil. Shell, BP and other majors also have operations at Port Fourchon.
When Chevron announced the nation's largest-ever oil find in the Gulf's deep waters, it also announced that Port Fourchon would be servicing production.
While Port Fourchon is receiving its props, the role the rest of the coast plays in America's energy production is sometimes lost even on the people who reside there. The Louisiana Geological Survey, a state research group, estimates that some 14,000 miles of transmission lines, pipelines and flow lines criss-cross south Louisiana.
The economic impact of all that production and transmission is hard to miss in a state built on oil revenues. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association recently contracted with Dr. Loren Scott, an economist who previously headed LSU's Economics Department, to publish a study on the total economic impact of the oil and gas industry on Louisiana. The tally exceeds $70 billion, according to the report. The study also concluded that the industry supports 320,000 direct and indirect jobs statewide.
'When you begin to examine the impact of the industry, you see just how far reaching it actually is and how it is connected to so many other economic sectors in the state," said Chris John, the former congressman who now serves as the group's president.
But, for all the gains, there also are losses. In the past century, Louisiana has lost 1.2 million acres of coastal wetlands and barrier islands. We stand to lose hundreds of thousands more if effective measures to stop erosion aren't taken soon.
It's a never-ending challenge, says Wendell Curole, director of the South Lafourche Levee District. While congressional authorization of the needed projects appears to be the immediate endgame, that in fact is just the beginning. 'There are still tremendous hurdles to get through before we ever reach construction," Curole says. Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Based on its energy-producing value to the nation, acre for acre, Louisiana is the most valuable real-estate in the nation. Louisiana is a crucial part of America's Energy Coast and we need help."
Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon in a recent speech on the House floor