By Steve Elwart

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security study has found that the temporary disruption of Louisiana Highway LA-1 in southern Lafourche Parish, near the energy hub of Port Fourchon, potentially could cripple the nation’s energy supply and cause major damage to the economy.

The DHS report titled “Louisiana Highway 1/Port Fourchon Study,” concludes that a 90-day closure of Port Fourchon due to the closing of LA-1 could result in a reduction of up to $7.8 billion in the American gross domestic product, significantly impacting domestic oil and gas production for at least a decade.

Located in southern Lafourche Parish, Port Fourchon is Louisiana’s southernmost port on the Gulf of Mexico. It is centrally located in a large area of the gulf that is rich in oil and natural gas drilling fields. The port has become a hub for the United States’ critical energy infrastructure. It is a primary supply base for oil rigs and production platforms in the central Gulf of Mexico with approximately 270 large supply ships moving through the port each day.

Crew and supply boats work out of the port because of its physical proximity to the facilities. Its location also makes it a prime site for the oil service industry in the gulf. The port currently services half of the drilling rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico, accounting for 75 percent of the gulf’s deepwater oil production. Oil production supplies and materials sent to rigs and platforms from Port Fourchon are brought into the port by more than 600 18-wheel trucks that travel on Louisiana Highway 1 each day.

The infrastructure of South Louisiana and LA-1, in particular, has come under increasing scrutiny since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the area in August and September 2005. According to the National Hurricane Center, the two storms caused a combined damage of $90 billion and left a trail of destruction from which the area has yet to recover.

The DHS study was conducted to provide an assessment of the national consequences of disruptions to this lifeline to the gulf. The study evaluates the reduced ability of the nation to deliver two critical commodities, crude oil and natural gas, to the American public as a result of the loss of access to Port Fourchon via LA-1. The study also addresses local, regional and national economic impacts due to a disruption of LA-1 for an extended period of time.

Since 2005, a nine-mile stretch of the two-lane highway that runs from Golden Meadow to Leeville has been closed to traffic due to storm surge a total of 23 days. The road, which sits at sea level, provides the only land access to Port Fourchon, which supports 16 percent of the nation’s energy supply. The study found that, based on predicted weather patterns, the highway could be closed due to flooding for more than three months by no later than the late 2030s.

LA-1 is the only means of land access to Port Fourchon and America’s only deepwater port, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or LOOP. LOOP handles over 1 million barrels of imported oil per day, which represents 14 percent of U.S. imported crude oil. The terminal also handles 300,000 barrels of domestic crude from the Gulf of Mexico’s Outer Continental Shelf, the home of the U.S. deepwater oil rigs.

The terminal provides tanker offloading and temporary storage services for crude oil transported on some of the largest tankers in the world. LOOP is critical to the United States energy picture because it services the oil supertankers that are too large for U.S. inland ports.

From the LOOP, crude oil is then transported to shore at Port Fourchon by a 48-inch pipeline. The crude is then pumped inland 25 miles to underground salt caverns, which have a capacity of 40 million barrels. From the storage facilities, five connecting pipelines tie LOOP to over 50 percent of United States refining capacity. Approximately 650 million barrels of crude oil are transported throughout the United States via pipelines through the port.

According to the LA-1 Coalition, every day, nearly 1,000 big trucks travel down a 30-mile section of two-lane highway. Between 1991-1996, there have been more than 5,000 accidents on the highway, making it twice as deadly as similar highways. This represents an increase of as much as 24 percent in recent years. (The national average is 2-5 percent.). The figure is expected to increase due to the anticipated activity on the Outer Continental Shelf.

LA-1 is included as part of the National Highway System, the NHS. These roads are considered the backbone of the U.S. transportation system. The NHS comprises only 4 percent of the country’s total highways; however, they are estimated to service 90 percent of all businesses and industries in the country. They provide access to ports, rail stations, borders, airports and transit faculties. LA-1 is included as part of the NHS because it supplies multiple methods (intermodal) of transportation to the U.S. energy supply. The highway is also the corridor for approximately 15,000 oil workers who fly out to the offshore platforms every month.

Of equal concern is the fact that LA-1 is the only means of evacuation for approximately 35,000 people, including 6,000 offshore workers who live in the area. LA-1 is a tenuous connection even when it is open. When the evacuation order is given, this two-lane road has all southbound traffic stopped, and both lanes are used for northbound traffic. If ths road is closed in the event of a disaster, it not only closes the only means for escape from the area by land, it also closes the only means of land access for oil spill responders for Port Fourchon and LOOP.

To lessen the danger of the platforms becoming isolated, a proposed nine-mile elevated highway between Golden Meadow and Leeville, costing $320 million and known as Phase 2 of the LA-1 Improvement Project, would replace the highway section that was evaluated in the NISAC/NIMSAT study.

“Finally, our federal government is officially acknowledging the immense value of this vulnerable highway to the national economy and our national energy supply,” said LA-1 Coalition Chairman Ted Falgout. “This credible national study provides very compelling reasons why the federal government should invest in construction of an elevated highway from Golden Meadow to Leeville, providing a continuous 19-mile secure highway route to Port Fourchon.”

Steve Elwart, P.E. is the senior research analyst with the Koinonia Institute and a Subject Matter Expert for the Department of Homeland Security. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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