Sat, Feb

Louisiana Asks Federal Government to Help Build a Better Bridge to Threatened Oil Port

If you think oil is expensive now, just imagine if Hurricane Ivan had swung west and come ashore at this bustling oil and gas port at the southernmost point of Louisiana.

PORT FOURCHON, Louisiana — If you think oil is expensive now, just imagine if Hurricane Ivan had swung west and come ashore at this bustling oil and gas port at the southernmost point of Louisiana.

That's the message Port Fourchon is broadcasting as it tries to get the federal government to help fund a new bridge and elevated highway to ensure access to this isolated spot and make sure its precious commodities never get swamped.

With 75 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's deep water oil and gas drilling supplied by Port Fourchon and 1.7 million barrels of oil a day coursing through pipelines under it, it is a queen bee when it comes to the nation's energy supply.

And port officials say a hurricane like Ivan would have knocked out this petroleum hub for a good long while.

"If Ivan had been 100 miles west, my guestimate is that oil would cost $75 a barrel," Ted Falgout, the port's executive director, told congressional staffers on a recent visit. "What that would have done to the country; I'll let you do the math."


Right now, a two-lane highway — Louisiana Highway 1 — is the only roadway to Port Fourchon. The road is barely above sea level as it barrels south through the marsh.

The port is asking for a $170 million federal loan to get construction started on a 73-foot-high bridge and 16-foot-high elevated highway from a point just south of the last levee out to the port.

But those plans have run into trouble.

Falgout said the federal government is unwilling to lend the money because of the uncertainty that traffic tolls to the port and Grand Isle, a nearby town, would ever pay off the loan.

"We haven't failed, but we're having to go back to the rating agency on Wall Street to sell our case that this port will grow substantially and that it will generate the traffic, that it will support the highway," Falgout said.

The port was built in the 1970s, initially to take a share of the banana import-export business away from the port at New Orleans. That didn't happen and over time, Port Fourchon became an essential staging point for offshore drilling activities, which have boomed in the past 20 years.

But Port Fourchon is a conundrum. On the one hand, its location is pure madness: On the very edge of the Gulf, it's not a question of if but when the next hurricane wallops it.

On the other hand, Louisiana has embraced the oil business unlike other states and positioned itself as critical to the Gulf's drilling infrastructure. Building a new port farther inland would be extremely expensive, officials say.

If Port Fourchon is going to remain where it is, port officials say, then something has to be done about Louisiana Highway 1. Water sloshes over it now when squalls come through, and tropical storms and hurricanes bury it under sea water, leaving port activity at a standstill.

Making matters worse is the Leeville bridge on Highway 1 which is sinking as the marsh around it erodes. Like much of coastal Louisiana, the marsh around Port Fourchon is breaking up and washing away.

With about 1,000 trucks using the highway each day — carrying everything from parts for oil rigs to pipeline material to keep the offshore industry humming — when the road closes everything slows down.

And water over the road isn't the worst scenario. A major hurricane like Ivan could easily wipe out the Leeville bridge just like Ivan destroyed a bridge in Pensacola, Florida.

"The Leeville bridge is the weakest link in the entire system. Had Ivan hit here, the Leeville bridge most likely would have blown over," Falgout said.

Source: Reuters