Processing Magazine

Vital Louisiana oil port left vulnerable to hurricanes

August 3, 2009
The booming oil hub called Port Fourchon, a nerve center in the nation''s oil supply chain in Louisiana, is turning into a sitting duck for hurricanes as the beach that protects it from the Gulf of Mexico washes away, reports the Associated Press. The miles-long sand bank 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 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. 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. 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.