Port that links U.S. to Gulf oil, gas is vulnerable

PORT FOURCHON, La. -- Every day, about a thousand 18-wheelers rumble south on a two-lane road through the marshes of south Louisiana on their way to a town where nobody lives.

The trucks arrive at Port Fourchon, La., and workers unload the cargo: food, water, pipeline, chains, anchors, ropes and everything else that keeps Gulf of Mexico oil rigs pumping. The trucks then turn around and head north on Louisiana Highway 1, the only way in and out of Port Fourchon.

Few Americans know it, but they depend on that narrow road. Oil companies need La. 1 to keep their rigs pumping. And if a hurricane left La. 1 underwater, energy analysts say, gasoline and natural gas prices could easily shoot out of control.

Port officials estimate that about 16 percent of the nation's crude oil comes from rigs and platforms that get their supplies from Port Fourchon. They say about 17 percent of the nation's natural gas comes from rigs that require access to the port.

Federal money needed

The officials say they need federal money to turn La. 1 into an elevated, four-lane highway to protect it from the hurricanes that periodically tear apart Louisiana's Gulf coast.

"The next hurricane that comes through here is going to convince a lot of people that we need a better highway," said Ted Falgout, executive director of the Greater LaFourche Port Commission.

Oil services industry officials said the more than 200 Fourchon-based vessels would be diverted to other ports where loading and unloading could take twice as long and cost significantly more.

"There would be a big impact, not only statewide but nationally, should that highway be cut off," said Roger White, senior vice president at Galliano, La.-based Edison Chouest Offshore, which supplies and transports materials and supplies to and from offshore oil rigs. "You'd see a dramatic increase in cost."

Port Fourchon became a critical energy link in 1981, with the opening of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Platform, or LOOP. The country's only deep water offshore port, LOOP is big enough to unload foreign crude from 750,000-ton supertankers. In 2000, LOOP moved more than 1.3 million barrels of crude a day.

No residents

Port Fourchon has no residents; it exists as the connection to food, water and all other supplies for the roughly 12,000 people who work on the hundreds of rigs in the Gulf. The port's cavernous buildings, like airplane hangars, are always full of activity as workers load supplies onto ships. The ships then move the supplies to the rigs.

Energy analysts consider those rigs crucial to the country's energy supply. If La. 1 were under water for several days following a storm, the rigs couldn't get their supplies. The oil and gas would stop flowing.

The U.S. government doesn't keep detailed statistics on how much oil and natural gas comes into each of the country's ports. But analysts say losing access to Fourchon could easily choke supply and send gas prices well over $3 per gallon.

"If supply is tight in the U.S. and demand is clipping along and you lose Louisiana, then you have a recipe for disaster," said Phil Flynn, senior energy analyst for Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.

The port's vulnerability to flooding actually is relatively new and caused by the steady erosion of Louisiana's Gulf coast. Louisiana loses 25 square miles of its coast annually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

That disappearing land is the state's protection against hurricanes and subsequent floods. When Hurricane Andrew hit the Louisiana coast in 1995, most of the area surrounding Port Fourchon and La. 1 was land. Today, much of the highway is surrounded by water, with no protection from flood waters.