August 1, 2009 in Business

Vital oil port open to major storms

Corps hopes to begin beach repairs in 2011
Cain Burdeau Associated Press
Associated Press photo

A man-made barrier is intended to keep the Gulf of Mexico off the beach at Caminada Headland Island, La. The miles-long sand bank on which Port Fourchon is located helps protect the port.
(Full-size photo)

CAMINADA HEADLAND, La. – The booming oil hub called Port Fourchon, a nerve center in the nation’s oil supply chain, is turning into a sitting duck for hurricanes as the beach that protects it from the Gulf of Mexico washes away.

The miles-long sand bank – blasted last year by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and by Katrina and Rita three years before that – is nearly all that keeps the Gulf from thrashing the pipelines and shipyards that handle 15 percent of all crude oil flowing to inland refineries.

Port Fourchon, about 70 miles south of New Orleans, also supports 90 percent of the Gulf’s 3,700 offshore platforms and connects with the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port – the only U.S. port capable of handling the largest oil tankers. The offshore port handles 1.5 million barrels of oil a day and ties in by pipeline to about half of domestic refining capacity, most of it on the Gulf Coast.

Officials worry that unless work begins immediately to bolster the port’s defenses, a direct hit from a strong Category 3 storm or worse could wipe out its waterways, docks, giant cranes, tanks and helipads, crippling the facility for weeks and creating a national energy crisis overnight.

The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to begin work in 2011 on a $243 million shoreline restoration project for the Caminada Headland, where Port Fourchon (pronounced FOO-shawn) sits. And this year’s hurricane season, forecast to be about average with nine to 14 tropical storms, has been quiet.

But August and September are the most active months, and catastrophic storms are not unheard of even during the sleepiest of seasons.

“Hope and pray there’s not another hurricane before we can get out there and do the work,” said Fay Lachney, the corps’ project manager.

Beyond the potential energy crisis, a badly damaged Port Fourchon poses an environmental risk, said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist and environmental activist. On a survey after Gustav last year, Subra found the area littered with hazardous debris from rigs, ships and oil and gas facilities.

“The companies had not secured everything,” she said. “There were 55-gallon drums everywhere, 5-gallon pails, little vials, sample containers, out on the road, on the sea grass.”

A major environmental catastrophe isn’t likely though, since the port is not a major storage spot for oil and pipelines typically are emptied when a storm threatens.

Port officials are eager for the corps work to begin but say they need to immediately shore up the facility’s eastern flank with $20 million of improvements. So far, the port has not been able to raise money for breakwaters, man-made dunes and other protection. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it does not pay for damage to a natural beach, and a proposal to use stimulus funds was rejected.

Chett Chaisson, the port’s economic development director, said he was trying to raise $10 million in state, port and local funds, and that he would turn to the energy industry “if we come up short … if we can’t find funding through the normal sources.”

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