In the US oil operations at Port Fourchon are becoming increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes because of the collapse of a natural beach which has always protected the port.
Although Port Fourchon is not a storage terminal, it is the meeting point for the pipelines from 90% of 3,700 drilling platforms just off the Gulf coast.
Moreover, the pipeline from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only US port capable of handling the largest oil tankers, passes through the Caminada headland, on which Port Fourchon sits. An estimated 15% of oil imported to the US passes through this offshore port.
A sandbank several miles long has always protected Port Fourchon from inundation by the Gulf of Mexico. But recent hurricanes in the region such as Gustav and Ike in 2008 and Katrina and Rita in 2005 have badly eroded this natural breakwater.
Now officials worry that a direct hit could cripple the port for weeks, creating a national energy crisis overnight. A 2006 study by Loren Scott predicted that, if Port Fourchon was closed for three weeks, the US would lose $9.9 billion (6.9 billion) in sales and 77,000 jobs.
The Army Corps of Engineers is hoping to begin work on a $243 million restoration project for the Caminada headland, where Port Fourchon sits. However, planning considerations mean that the engineers will not be able to begin work until 2012.
Hope and pray theres not another hurricane before we can get out there and do the work, said Fay Lachney, the corps project manager.
Chett Chaisson, the ports economic development director, tells Tank Storage magazine that more work will be necessary in the long term: We are very supportive of the work of the corps, which is absolutely necessary; but what they are doing is putting in sand reconstructing the beach and creating a dune. This will start eroding as soon as the next hurricane hits. What we really need in the long term is to erect breakwaters or other hard structures. He estimates this would cost about another $100 million.
The oil industry pays $7 billion in royalties to the US treasury every year, he argues. The money should be available for this.
Oil companies are also reportedly considering relaying pipelines into the port: many pipelines that were originally buried in marsh are now lying in open water. Pipelines laid in water are typically buried more deeply to protect them from turbulence.